There's a saying in fitness that six-pack abs are made in the kitchen. As a Pilates instructor, I believe that proper focus, form and technique are required to gain maximum benefit from your workouts. But I've witnessed the most ardent exercise enthusiasts fail to earn results because their diet doesn't possess the right nutritional components to help them lose fat and gain muscle.
Misconceptions about food still abound in our cultural consciousness and sabotage our efforts to build a lean, strong body. The more we learn about nutrition, the more we realize that food is not as simple as "carbs, protein and fat."
So what should we eat to promote the achievement of a bold and sinewy physique?
Dietary fat does NOT equal body fat. In fact, it's essential in absorbing vitamins A, D, E and K, critical compounds promoting bone and tissue growth, immune system function and the transport of antioxidants. If we eat a fat-deficient diet, we feel constantly hungry and suffer mental fatigue.
In our attempt to replace the energy reserves we're missing, we overeat "low-fat" foods teeming with sugar which DOES equal body fat.
Eat foods containing mono- or polyunsaturated fats like almonds, avocado, olive oil, sardines, walnuts and wild salmon. Most of these foods are also packed with protein, guaranteeing satiety and long-term energy.
Eat less meat.
Muscles need protein to repair damaged tissue and develop new cells, and meat provides you with all nine essential amino acids to support this process. But meat is highly acidic and difficult to digest, leading to bloating, constipation and lethargy. Eating too much meat is linked to risk of heart disease, diabetes and even some forms of cancer.
So can we benefit from the pros of eating meat while also eating less of it? Absolutely.
Wild salmon, mackerel and sardines, as well as milk and yogurt, are complete proteins. They're just as effective at building muscle as meat and possess the dietary fat needed to metabolize our fat-soluble vitamins. Fish provides the bonus compound of omega-3, reducing inflammation throughout the body and helping to lower cholesterol.
Eggs win the gold standard for nutrition. One egg has 75 calories, 7 grams of protein, omega-3, iron, vitamins, minerals and carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Purchase quality eggs laid by pastured chickens who are free to eat their natural diet of grass, herbs and bugs. If the egg yolk is a vibrant orange, you've hit the nutritional jackpot. If the yolk is an anemic yellow, the mama hen was most likely malnourished, too.
If you don't eat animal-based foods, eat nuts, seeds, legumes and the superfood quinoa to meet your protein needs. These foods do contain an abundance of carbohydrates, so use them not as a mainstay, but to supplement a protein-rich, plant-based diet.
Eat more plants.
If you want proof that a plant-based diet is just as good as a meat-based diet, just ask a gorilla. I don't think this vegan King Kong needs a T-Bone when it comes to building titanic strength and power.
Leafy greens are so low in calories relative to their nutrient density that you can eat a lot of them and still lose weight. Leafy greens are also brimming with hundreds of phytonutrients associated with liver and gut detoxification, blood sugar regulation and disease resistance.
Some of my favorites:
- Arugula is packed with natural nitrates that promote blood flow to muscles.
- Collard Greens have the highest vitamin K content for bone growth.
- Kale is delicious, versatile and great in smoothies and juices.
- Mustard Greens have detoxification enzymes that protect the body's organs.
- Spinach has the highest protein content for muscle building.
- Swiss Chard has the highest fiber content to fight heart disease.
Keep it real.
No matter what dietary road we walk, the most important choice we can make is to eat whole foods. If it's in a box or a bag, throw it away. If it's been parsed, pulverized, packaged or otherwise processed, leave it and head to the produce aisle. If it walked on four legs, buy only organic, grass-fed meat that once belonged to happy, frolicking animals just the way nature intended.
Eating whole foods supports our body's ability to self-regulate and self-heal, so that the Real You emerges – lean, healthy, vibrant and beautiful. Foods free from chemicals, additives and hormones sing a song of clarity within the body and the body sings back with a chorus of strength and vitality.
You have within you the power to create the body you want, and your journey begins with the choices you make in the kitchen. Remember that you are what you eat. So eat well, and listen to your body sing.
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