Ever since high school, I have taken a keen interest in physical fitness, worked out consistently, read different books and periodicals and consulted with many fitness pros to broaden my knowledge base on the subject. I have logged thousands of hours in the gym testing out numerous weight lifting (anaerobic), aerobic, stretching and dieting routines, using myself as a human guinea pig. Since then, I have tailored many strength training and conditioning programs, stretching routines, and given copious amounts of nutritional advice to family, friends and fellow gym rats. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, a disproportionate amount of inquiries that came my way were about lifting weights and stretching. Once I turned 40, the majority of questions I received had more to do with diet and weight loss.
Does a “diet” exist that people with an average amount of willpower can actually stick to over the long term, does not deprive them of their favorite foods and is well-balanced? The short answer is “no.” Indeed, the number of get slim quick gimmicks, get lean fast fads, and other enticing offers that conveniently find their way into our inboxes (talk about “junk” mail), mailboxes, across our computer screens or in books and magazines is mind boggling, can be overwhelming and most importantly, are of little long term practical value. The notion of the term “diet” is temporary, which is why they often fail; it inherently implies a short-term solution to eating and lifestyle choices that will revert to the mean. Below is a sampling of three of the most famous diets:
The South Beach Diet: In this diet, the subject must eliminate “bad carbs” derived in part from sodas, candy and cookies and eat protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and “good carbs” derived in part from brown rice, corn and legumes.
The Paleo Diet: Commonly referred to as the “caveman diet.” Only foods that existed hundreds and thousands of years ago before the advent of modern food processing technology, are allowed to be consumed. Meat, fish, nuts and vegetables are permissible. All grains and processed foods are not.
The Atkins Diet: The most famous of all fads. The original Atkins Diet simply instructed its participants to avoid all carbohydrates; fried eggs and bacon where fine. The new Atkins Diet is “healthier.” It includes leaner protein and “good carbs.” However, whole grains are not allowed until later, once the dieter enters the “maintenance phase.”
All three of these diets are rigid, not particularly well balanced, and close to impossible to stick to over the long term. The primary reason is because they all deprive of us of some of our favorite foods. That is no fun and tends to put people in rotten moods.
For ~$55,000 dollars per year, you can attend university and earn a degree in nutrition. If your hunger – excuse the pun – for knowledge persists, after graduating you can take continuing education, sit for exams and become a licensed dietician. Nutritionists, dieticians and other professionals certainly play important roles educating and helping people who have specific imbalances, physical limitations, special dietary restrictions or need to work with physicians to help manage acute or chronic illnesses. Indeed, many legitimate cases exist where the treatment and guidance of a licensed dietician or related professional is appropriate.
For the majority of us who are fortunate to be in relatively good health and don’t have any major dietary restrictions, this is almost all you have to know regarding diet and nutrition: If it grows on this earth, it’s great for you. If it swims in the ocean, it’s good for you. If it lives on the earth, it’s ok for you. If it’s made on this earth, it’s terrible for you.
After discussing diet and exercise with people of all ages, shapes and sizes coupled with hundreds of hours of due diligence, I have developed the following qualitative system – not a diet – that provides general guidelines, a foundation for relatively health conscious individuals to eat to live - as opposed to live to eat - and maintain a healthier lifestyle. It’s relatively simple, easy to stick to, and once you get the hang of it, lots of fun too. Here is how it works:
Apply a 4x3x2x1 ratio when consuming foods that grow on this earth, swim in the ocean, live on the earth and made on the earth. Everything else will tend to take care of itself. Scratching your head? Here are a few real-life examples.
Broccoli grows on this earth. Broccoli is great for you. Salmon swim in the ocean (or rivers). Salmon is good for you. According to the 4x3x2x1 method, one should consume 1.33x more broccoli than salmon: Broccoli (4) / Salmon (3) = 1.33.
Bananas grow on this earth. Bananas are great for you. White bread is made on this earth. White bread (eaten in excess) is terrible for you. According to the 4x3x2x1 method, one should consume 4x the volume of bananas than white bread: Bananas (4) / White Bread (1) = 4.
Codfish swim in the ocean. Codfish are good for you. Pigs live on the earth. Pork is ok for you. According to the 4x3x2x1 method, one should consume 1.5x more codfish than pork: Codfish (3) / Pork (2) = 1.5. Try the 4x3x2x1 approach with various foods you enjoy. It's effective and fun.
There are granular questions that one can formulate or facts people can certainly point out where the 4x3x2x1 method breaks down. Are we talking volumes of food or caloric intake? Certain fruits are very high in sugar. Certain ocean dwellers are particularly high in cholesterol. Not everything that is made on this earth is terrible for you, etc.
It would be negligent not to stress, and do so very pointedly, that no specific dietary program will be optimal for all or even a majority of the general population. A magic formula does not exist; there is no panacea. The 4x3x2x1 method is a qualitative guideline, a starting point with room for subjectivity and appropriate deviation; not a perfect formula. But what the 4x3x2x1 approach does do is enable you to start thinking more about the different types of foods you consume, the amount you consume relative to other alternatives, and initiate a process of discovering which types of foods in each subgroup your body responds best to.
Listen to your body, not anybody
In nutrition, certain facts are well established. For instance, there is conclusive, indisputable evidence that eating fruits, vegetables or fish are better for you than eating candy. However, when you drill down to a level of granularity within certain types of fruit or fish, things become more complicated and case specific. You might read about the benefits of consuming a particular kind fruit or the wonders of eating a certain kind of fish. Somebody might tell you that some vegetable or that legume will make you feel stupendous. That person is probably well intentioned, but unfortunately, they are projecting how their body responded to a specific type of vegetable or legume and making the (sometimes false) assumption that your body will respond the exact same way. It is imperative to keep in mind, that while one person might feel great from salmon, another person’s body might respond better to snapper. Point being, while we can confidently assume that our bodies will respond better to fish than to a Snickers bar, we should not assume that just because a specific type of fish agreed perfectly with one person, that that particular fish is best suited for somebody else.
Walk Don’t Ride
Of equal importance, one must commit to exercise. Let me be clear, exercise does not have to be intense weight lifting or excessive cardiovascular training; 45 minutes of moderate resistance training coupled with a few brisk longs walks per week will typically suffice.
Before elevators were commonplace, premiums were put on living on a lower floor. Now, people pay a premium to live on a high floor. If you happen to live in a building and that building has an elevator, try not to use it; walk up the stairs instead. If you live on a very high floor, consider taking the stairs part of the way to your apartment. Walking up 10 flights of stairs burns ~50 calories. If you walked up 10 flights of stairs, 1 time per day, 365 days a year, you would burn 18,250 calories while simultaneously strengthening your legs and cardiovascular system. The average man consumes ~2,500 calories per day. Hence, burning 18,250 calories is the equivalent of not eating for over a week.
*Before commencing any diet or exercise program, it’s imperative that you first talk with your physician. Once you are on your way, email me with any questions, comments, explanations or declarations!