Healthy Eating & Fitness: Do Diet Foods Lower Your Fitness?

Ben GreenfieldBy Ben Greenfield, Sports Science and Exercise Physiology Expert, Fitness Trainer, Coach and Ironman Triathlete.

Healthy eating, which contributes to fitness, requires a certain amount of understanding about ingredients and how to read labels. Here is a recent daily food and drink record from a client of mine who is on a diet food regimen and yet is having trouble trimming his waistline and getting fit.

8am: Popular bottled nutrition smoothie

10am: Apple with diet energy drink

Noon: Tuna sandwich with fat-free apple chips

2pm: Popular diet cola

4pm: Popular protein bar

6pm: Popular pre-formulated prepared “hearty beef stew” meal

7pm: Popular diet cola

You would be surprised how many nutritionally uneducated athletes have similar daily routines.

My client had the constant frustration of wondering: “How can I still be having trouble trimming my waistline when I am on such a strict diet?”

How is it that a body can consume diet drinks and prepackaged foods that have been specifically designed to lower calorie intake and support complete nutrition, and yet experience bloating, fatigue, weight gain and several other serious health issues?

Let’s take a look at the actual ingredients of my client’s “diet” foods.

The front label of the popular nutrition smoothie says, “Complete, balanced nutrition to help stay healthy, active and energetic,” with a large upper label that claims, “No. 1 Doctor-recommended.”

Turn to the back of the bottle for the ingredients, and you will find that the top four ingredients are: 1) water; 2) sugar; 3) corn syrup; and 4) maltodextrin. Ignore the fact that my client is paying a high price for a product that primarily contains “water,” and let’s take a look at the remaining ingredients of this nutrition smoothie.

Sugar, also known as sucrose, is a processed and refined carbohydrate that, according to clinical studies, has been linked to diabetes, depression, weight gain, obesity and a variety of other health issues. Sugar is also highly acidic and forces your body to balance the acid load by leaching calcium, a non-acidic compound, from your bones, adding to your chances of developing osteoporosis and decreasing bone strength.

One of the most serious threats that sugar poses to an individual is its effect on the pancreas and liver. A high or consistent consumption of sugar can cause decreased insulin sensitivity, which is a precursor to adult-onset diabetes. It can also cause a frustrating inability to metabolize carbohydrates properly. These unused carbohydrates are eventually transferred to the liver, where they are converted into fat, and relegated to the waistline, hips, butt and anywhere else you tend to store fat.

The third ingredient in the popular nutritional smoothie is corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is the primary sweetener in soft drinks, which is why numerous studies have connected soda consumption to weight gain and obesity. Like sucrose, corn syrup is a processed, refined carbohydrate that can decrease insulin sensitivity and can easily be converted into fat by the human body. And like sucrose, corn syrup is completely devoid of vitamins, minerals and nutritional value.

Maltodextrin is the fourth ingredient. Maltodextrin is also a processed and refined carbohydrate, and is often used by competitive cyclists, marathoners and triathletes who are burning 800-1,000 calories per hour and who need a sweet and highly dense energy source during training or competition. Ironically, in the popular nutrition smoothie, maltodextrin is featured as a supplement designed to reduce caloric intake.

The list of ingredients following maltodextrin includes compounds that we find in many packaged nutrition drinks:

“Milk Protein Concentrate, Canola Oil, Soy Protein Concentrate, Corn Oil, Short-Chain Fructooligosaccharides, Whey Protein Concentrate, Magnesium Phosphate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Potassium Citrate, Sodium Citrate, Soy Lecithin, Calcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Salt (Sodium Chloride), Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Carrageenan, Ferrous Sulfate, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Zinc Sulfate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Cupric Sulfate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Chromium Chloride, Biotin, Sodium Molybdate, Sodium Selenate, Potassium Iodide, Phylloquinone, Vitamin D3, and Cyanocobalamin.”

For anyone with food allergies or sensitivities that can cause bloating, fat fluctuations and other health issues, the presence of soy, whey, dairy and several other items in this laundry list of ingredients can spell serious weight gain.

In point of fact, my client’s expensive morning nutrition smoothie could be described as “sugar-water with added vitamins.” So much for “complete, balanced nutrition.” He could get much more healthy bang for his buck with a natural food-based product like Natural Vitality’s Organic Life Vitamins® mixed with water or natural juice.

A couple of hours after his smoothie breakfast, my client consumes his mid-morning diet energy drink, which many popular energy drink manufacturers claim are “fat burners,” “thermogenics” and “dietary aids.” I have recommended that those who are attempting to lose weight stay clear of these products.

First, most of these products contain a large amount of caffeine, and there is the potential danger of overdose and addiction. The average energy drink contains nearly four times the amount of caffeine found in sodas, and several of the more popular brands contain the caffeine equivalent of 14 colas. A six-ounce cup of coffee has 80-150 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, but the caffeine content of energy drinks ranges from 50 to 500+ mg, with one popular energy drink “shot” topping out at 570 mg — the equivalent of about three and a half cups of coffee with a single sip!

Why should this concern you? Because caffeine forces your adrenal glands to secrete enormous amounts of adrenaline and “energy” hormones, even when those glands are depleted. The result is a growing tolerance to the effects of caffeine and eventual adrenal fatigue, which causes a slowing of the metabolism and the inability to lose weight. This is accompanied by a feeling of increased tiredness and the need for larger and larger amounts of caffeine to achieve an energy boost. Attempts at quitting can result in withdrawal symptoms, such as severe headaches and a complete loss of mental focus and function.

In addition, high levels of caffeine inhibit the activity of the vitamins folate, B12 and B6, and may interfere with your body’s ability to regulate two important heart disease risk factors: homocysteine and cholesterol. By causing blood vessel constriction and increased risk of blood clots, the caffeine content in some energy drinks can literally be deadly for someone with high stress levels or high blood pressure. Finally, high levels of caffeine have been associated with increased risk of stroke and arthritis, insomnia, heart palpitations, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea and chest pain.

The second reason to avoid these caffeine-laden energy drinks is the high sugar or artificial sweetener content of these drinks. One can of energy drink contains the equivalent of nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar! As covered earlier, enormous amounts of sugar or consistent consumption of sugar causes your pancreas to flood insulin into your system in an attempt to manage all the extra glucose that ends up circulating in your bloodstream. Some of this sugar may be used by your muscles, but usually only if you are exercising very frequently. The remainder of the sugar is converted into fat by the liver. In addition, as a response to the surge in insulin, the body releases both epinephrine and cortisol from your adrenal glands. The result is a fast boost in energy, followed by a crash and a severely compromised immune system, a surge of cell-damaging free radicals, thickened blood, weight gain and an eventual insensitivity to insulin, also known as type II diabetes.

But what about artificial sweeteners, such as those found in my client’s “diet” energy drink? Don’t they eliminate this problem? Unfortunately, research has shown that gastric hormones are still released when you consume an artificial sweetener. This sends your brain a confusing message: Food is present, but that food has no calories. As a consequence, you are hungry and craving something to eat typically 30-60 minutes after consuming an artificially sweetened beverage.

It is also important to note that these artificial chemical sweeteners, such as aspartame (NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium and sugar alcohols, have been linked to upset stomachs, mood swings, birth defects, cancer, diabetes, emotional disorders, epilepsy, seizures, a variety of neurological disorders and obesity.

Healthy eating does not include caffeinated energy drinks. Why not use a natural energy drink, such as Energy28™? This liquid whole-food sustainable energizer doesn’t burn out your adrenals, doesn’t contain caffeine or processed sugar, but does contain such natural energizers as Golden Chlorella™ Omega, a complete nutrient-dense green food, 24 organic superfruits, veggies, sprouts and fruits, organic maca, Bioenergy RIBOSE™ and rhodiola.

With my client’s breakfast and mid-morning snack acting as two strikes against him in his battle for weight loss, surely his lunch, a tuna fish sandwich with fat-free apple chips, cannot be a problem? Ignoring the tuna sandwich, which, if prepared with fat-free yogurt rather than mayonnaise, may actually be conducive to weight loss, let’s focus on the fat-free apple chips.

Your weight-loss radar should always signal a red alert when you see anything with the terms “low-fat” or “fat-free.” If you look closely at the ingredients label, you will more often than not find that fat has been eliminated in favor of sugars, which the human body is very efficient at converting into fat.

With respect to the fat-free apple chips, the fat has not been eliminated, but has surprisingly been added! Here are the ingredients:

“Apples, canola and/or sunflower oil, corn syrup, citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C).”

To make the apples, which have been dehydrated, much more edible, the manufacturer has added vegetable oil and corn syrup! Although this snack may still not pack as many calories as a bag of potato chips, it is still a far inferior alternative to a piece of fresh, organic, raw fruit.

At 2pm, and later with dinner, my client drinks a diet cola. Just like the diet energy drink, this is a product that contains a no-calorie artificial sweetener that is ruining his ability to control food intake and weight loss. A recent Purdue University research study found that rats that ate yogurt sweetened with an artificial sweetener (saccharin) compared with rats that ate yogurt sweetened with regular sugar consumed more calories, gained more weight and put on more body fat. Additionally, the rats that consumed the artificially sweetened yogurt had a lower post-meal rise in their body temperature and metabolism, making it harder for them to burn more calories.

Further research has shown that diet sodas may double the risk of obesity by stimulating appetite, carbohydrate cravings, fat storage and weight gain and cause “roller-coaster” eating habits.

However, the health hazards of diet sodas go far beyond an inability to lose fat.

For example, aspartame contains the chemical phenylalanine, which can easily disrupt your brain’s balance of dopamine and serotonin and lead to migraine headaches. The aspartic acid in aspartame is an excitotoxin, which can disrupt fragile fibers in your brain and cause specific brain cells to become excessively excited, to the point where they quickly die off. Finally, when consumed by the human body, certain parts of aspartame are broken down into formaldehyde and methanol, which can be toxic.

Healthy eating does not include the consumption of diet sodas.

My client finishes his day with two meals: a popular protein bar and a popular pre-formulated and prepared nutritional “hearty stew meal.”

The first few ingredients of the protein bar read similarly to the nutritional breakfast smoothie: “Whey protein, Casein, Soy Protein, Brown Rice Syrup, Sugar, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Coca Powder, Maltitol, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Glycerin, Alkalized Cocoa Powder.”

By now, you realize that although my client could have easily purchased this protein bar at the front desk of a health club or gym, none of these ingredients are helping his body to lose fat, and are probably, in truth, causing weight gain.

At first glance, the pre-formulated meal appears to be one of the more “natural” meals that my client has consumed the entire day. The ingredient label reads: “Water, Beef, Potatoes, Carrots, Tomatoes, Peas, Soy Protein, Celery, Corn Flour, Hydrolyzed Corn, Wheat Protein, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Autolyzed Yeast, Sugar, Caramel Color, Tartaric Acid.”

Despite a couple of red flags, such as hydrolyzed corn and sugar, this label seems to be rather innocent compared to the other foods that he has eaten earlier in the day. The actual nutrition fact label of the pre-formulated meal, however, reveals nearly 500 mg of sodium, or 20% of my client’s daily recommended requirement.

Why is this a problem? Not only is excessive sodium intake one of the single highest causes of high blood pressure, but the incredibly high amounts of salt in processed and packaged foods like pre-formulated powdered and canned soups, frozen meals, and deli casseroles and salads can cause bloating, water retention, swollen extremities, fatigue and lethargy, all complaints often voiced by overweight and obese individuals.

Don’t fall prey to the advertisements, hype and marketing slogans behind fat-free products, weight-loss foods, prepackaged meals and convenient “healthy nutrition” smoothies. These products are actually filling my client’s body with dangerous substances that are completely contrary to healthy weight loss, and placing him at risk for even more serious health problems down the road.

So how can my client “ditch his diet” for a healthy eating plan?

Step 1: In the morning, eat something real. That’s right: Choose a food that grew on a tree or from the ground, and is immediately recognizable. Try some old-fashioned oats, not instant oats. All you need is hot water. Add a handful of almonds, a splash of almond milk, and a teaspoon of honey. Take advantage of the fact that when you wake up and the light hits your eyes, your body’s metabolism naturally revs up, and carbohydrates are OK in the morning.

Step 2: Don’t wait until lunch to eat. Your body will be more likely to have a blood sugar and insulin spike after a 4-5 hour break from eating, and you’ll probably eat more than you should for lunch. Instead, in the mid-morning, have a fresh piece of raw fruit, like a grapefruit. Save the proteins and the fats for later in the afternoon, when your metabolism begins to slow.

Step 3: Just like breakfast, eat real food for lunch. Try the “salad in a jar” approach. Using a large canning jar or Tupperware container, first layer 1 tablespoon olive oil + 1 tablespoon balsamic vinaigrette. Then add 4-6 oz. of chicken, turkey, beef or lamb. Then add ½ sliced red or green pepper, ¼ sliced red onion, a handful of olives, mushrooms, ½ sliced cucumber and ½ sliced tomato. Finally, add a handful of mixed greens. After emptying the jar, everything will pile up on the plate perfectly! This is a convenient lunch to take to work.

Step 4: Have a mid-afternoon snack, comprising easily recognizable, non-processed proteins and/or fats. Try half an avocado, sprinkled with a bit of cheddar cheese in the center, and microwaved for 30 seconds.

Step 5: Have some soup for dinner. But rather than opting for a prepackaged powder or processed, pre-formulated, prepared version full of sodium and MSG, try a super-fast and incredibly healthy version of miso soup. Into 2 cups of water, add 1 tablespoon miso, ½ red onion, 1 handful spinach, 1 cup chopped mushrooms, 1 tablespoon almond butter or tahini, and ½ clove garlic. Bring ingredients to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Step 6: If my client experiences carbohydrate cravings or needs extra help as he adjusts his diet, using a natural blood sugar and appetite stabilizer would help tremendously, as would using natural health supplements such as a food-based natural product like Organic Life Vitamins and a magnesium supplement as in Natural Vitality’s popular product called Natural Calm®. Magnesium as one of the key electrolytes is an excellent example of an energy nutrient, since it activates enzymes that control digestion, absorption, and the utilization of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Because magnesium is involved with hundreds of enzymatic reactions throughout the body, deficiency can affect every aspect of life and cause a score of unhealthy symptoms. Processed foods and sugary foods as described earlier deplete the body of magnesium and add to adrenal stress, and supplementing with Natural Calm helps replenish the body’s stores of this vital mineral.

Healthy eating and healthy fat-loss nutrition is a lifestyle, not a set of rules or specially prepared boxes, cans and bottles of magic fat-loss foods. Make the decision today to apply healthy eating principles in your day-to-day life and stay fit, and your body will love you for it.

For even more information, you can visit Ben’s free blog and audio podcast at http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com.

Bio: Ben Greenfield, M.A. Sports Science and Exercise Physiology, Mr. Greenfield was voted the 2008 Personal Trainer of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is the author of Shape21—The Complete 21-Day Lean Body Manual, along with several other books, including Top 12 Resistance Training Routines for Triathletes, Run With No Pain and 100 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.