Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Healthy Eating During Dry July

I have decided to participate in Dry July for the fourth time.  If you want to sponsor me, go to

I am not a dietician, nor particularly well versed in the current scientific knowledge regarding food and nutrition.  I am also somewhat overweight, and my cholesterol level is on the high side of normal.  That said, my recent medical checkups have shown me to be moderately healthy for my age in most respects.  So what I say below should be taken with a grain of salt (but only one grain).

July (in the southern hemisphere) is an optimal month to focus on one's weight and health: no alcohol and low temperatures, so you can burn extra energy to maintain body temperature just by doing nothing.

Fat, Butter, Sugar, Salt and Carbohydrates
Food is made up of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, along with other minerals and chemicals.  Fats aren't specifically bad, but have a higher concentration of energy (calories) than carbohydrates or protein per gram.   We have an over-abundance of fats in our food though.  Carbohydrates (which include sugars) aren't specifically bad either, but again, they tend to get added quite over-generously to products.

I think of the 'bad' components of food (e.g. sugar, sodium/salt, fats, chemistry) in terms of radiation.  There is always some background radiation around, and the odd x-ray every few years is OK, but one must be aware what your level of exposure is in total.  So think that in our foods there is always a certain background level of 'bad' components, but some foods (such as processed foods) can have a significantly higher level of this 'radioactivity'.  But unlike radiation, we do need a certain amount of sugar, sodium and fat in our diet,

There is a rule of thumb that if the item is white, it isn't so good for you.  I extend this to thinking that whitish translucent fat such as butter, cheese or the white fat found on meat is probably full of cholesterol too.  Now to completely eliminate these would make your diet very boring and unsatisfying, so it becomes more a game of managing and controlling your level of intake.  Be responsible for it.

It can be quite educational to read the nutritional labels on products.  They may demonstrate a 'radioactive' dimension you weren't aware of.  Or not.

Drinking Healthy
Most packaged drinking options one has when out and about have significant drawbacks.  Usually high levels of sugar or artificial sweeteners (do you really want to ingest something that was processed in a chemical plant or oil refinery?), sodium, or fat.  Options, worst to best:
  • Energy drinks.  The energy come from lots of sugar, and include some dubious ingredients that sound like they came from a chemistry experiment and can't be beneficial to your liver or kidneys.  Also very over-priced.
  • 'Soft' drinks, such as Coke, have a significant amount of sugar.   The non-sugar versions are chock full of sodium and artificial sweeteners.
  • Alcoholic drinks.  While we won't imbibe these during Dry July, it is important to note that the energy density correlates to the alcoholic concentration: Spirits > Fortified Wines > Wines > Pre-Mixed > Beer > Light Beer.
  • Fruit juice.  Fruit with the fibre, some vitamins and nutrients removed.  No more healthy than a Coke really, considering the amount of sugar.  You are much better off eating the actual piece of fruit.
  • Smoothies and fresh mixed fruit juices.  Basically milkshakes, high in calories, and expensive.  Might have a few more vitamins though.
  • Flavoured waters and teas.  Often as much sugar as a Coke.  I still don't understand why they can't sell a flavoured drink that isn't sweetened.
  • Flavoured milks.  Lots of sugar and fat.  The rotting milk residue in your mouth will make your breath smell horrible.
  • Bottled water.  The packaging (this goes for all packaged drinks) is wasteful.  Also, some media has suggested there is more bacteria present in bottled water than tap water (this is of course impacted by your source of tap water and the container you use).  Expensive too.  Whenever I see people out and about with commercially bottled water, those bottles look to me as badges of ignorance. 
  • Coffee and Tea.  In moderation (i.e. 1 or 2 cups a day) these can actually be a good option, as the caffeine will raise your metabolic rate allowing you to burn calories without extra effort.  The teaspoon of sugar you might add is insignificant compared to the sugar in a Coke, so don't bother with the artificial sweetener.
  • Tap Water.  Hard to find, but the healthiest, simplest and cheapest option.
Oh, and if anyone tells you that you need to consume some ridiculous amount of water per day to maintain health, ignore them.  This nonsense has no scientific basis.  Drink when you are thirsty.  If you are thirsty all the time, talk to you doctor about diabetes.

Processed Food
I have a personal distrust of most processed food.  This doesn't include basics such as flour and pasta.  It just seems many manufactured food items have some mysterious components I should know about, but don't want to.

Processed foods often include ingredients that should have stayed in a chemist's lab.   The processing involves the expenditure of energy (more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere), which might have better been expended by your digestive system.  They almost always taste worse than the original ingredients, but do come in colourful packaging!  Very often these have added sugar, salt/sodium and fat.  Sadly, the vast majority of items available in our supermarkets and shops are processed or manipulated in some way.  Some notes:
  • 'Diet', 'Low Fat', 'Low Sugar', 'Low Sodium' Labels: These labels tell me there is something very wrong with this item, either flavour, or the component being reduced has been replaced with something even worse.  Avoid anything with these labels.
  • Sauces such as sweet chilli or soy have high levels of sodium.
  • Salad dressings.  Once you have tasted a low-fat salad dressing, you will wonder how they sell them at all.
  • Take away salads.  Why must shops glop on lashings of greazy, salty, crud onto wilted ingredients?
  • Sausages are processed food, and usually have high levels of fat and sodium.
  • Packaged snacks and candy bars.  Envisage these being produced in a chemical factory.  Even the fats are fake.  Lots of sodium, sugar and fat.  Nothing good will come from consuming these.
  • Yoghurt.  This isn't much more healthy than some milk with sugar.  Not much better than a glass of flavoured milk.  But the bacteria in it might be good for your gut (there is some debate as to whether it survives passing through the stomach), but you only need that once a week or so.  Still, I always have some after a round of antibiotics.  And it does contain needed calcium if you don't like milk.
  • Tofu and other soy products.  These are not specifically healthy, although vegetarians like them for questionable reasons.
  • Anything in a 'health' food shop.  If our species managed to survive millions of years without the nonsense they sell...
  • Shellfish have lots of cholesterol, and eat sewerage.  Can be high in dangerous heavy metals.  Avoid any sourced from outside Australia.
  • Pre-prepared 'deli' items, such as gunk coated chicken skewers, don't have ingredient labels for a reason (and it isn't a good one).
  • Fast foods and take away foods.  These should be fairly obvious to minimise.

So, What Is Good?
  • Unprocessed food, because:
    1. You know what you are eating
    2. No added gunk
    3. Probably more dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals
    4. It may take more energy for you to consume and digest
  • Meat (chicken, beef, pork) with the fat trimmed off.  
  • Steamed fresh vegetables retain most of their vitamins, fibre & flavour.  A tiny touch of sauce or butter can make them more palatable.
  • Salads with a touch of simple, freshly made dressing.  It takes about a minute to make a basic vinaigrette, and costs a fraction of pre-made dressings.  Also you really only need a tiny amount if it is tossed into the leaves properly.
  • Whole fruit.  Takes more energy to chew and digest, so are better than juice.
  • Rice and legumes.  In moderation.  These convert to sugars when digested.
When constructing your meal, try to go heavy on the veg, and light on the meat and starch.

When out and about, the healthiest lunch options I have found seem to be the basic Subway sandwiches, but you need to strongly direct the assembler to not glop on so much greazy sauce.

It is important to consider even good food must be consumed in a balanced and moderate manner.  And one cannot avoid processed and 'bad' foods completely.  But you can reduce your intake of the 'bad' items to a small proportion of your intake, and maintain a diet consisting of a variety of ingredients.