Taking Care of Your Dietary Composition
by Fred Dimenna Ph.D.

 Taking control of your energy balance requires knowing how much energy you need to ingest each day in order to achieve your objectives (e.g., fat loss, muscle gain or remaining status quo). In the preceding series, I explained that once you determine your caloric maintenance level (the amount of kilocalories you require each day to maintain your current fat stores) and adjust your intake (diet) and expenditure (the sum of the energy you need to sustain your basal metabolic rate and all of the physical activities you perform) according to your goals, you will have successfully taken control of this important aspect of health.

However, simply doing so does not ensure that you will be optimizing your health because in addition to how much energy you consume, what you ingest to derive that amount also plays an important role. There is an old adage that "you are what you eat" and the 2004 documentary film "Super Size Me" confirms this to be true. The film was directed by and starred Morgan Spurlock, an American filmmaker who decided to eat only McDonalds for a month to see what would happen.

Spurlock dined at McD's three times a day and sampled every item on their menu over the 30-day period. He also chose the super-size meal every time it was offered. When all was said and done, Spurlock gained close to 25 pounds, increased his total cholesterol from 168 to 230 mg/dl (desirable to borderline high) and experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction and fat accumulation in his liver after his one-month splurge had ended. Obviously, his body was not "lovin' it."

But if you understand the take-home message from the preceding series, you would astutely note that his problems might not relate to poor control of dietary composition alone. His weight gain suggests that he had ingested 87,500 kilocalories more than he needed over the course of the month, which amounts to no less than 3,000 extra kilocalories per day. When you store extra body fat, it is not conducive to health, so it is reasonable to ask how much of the detrimental effects of his poor eating habits were related to excessive energy intake regardless of the source.

In order to tease out precisely how much of Morgan Spurlock's health hit was due to fat gain compared to poor food choices, one would have to explore the issue further. For example, having Morgan return to his pre-documentary body weight and then consume 87,500 extra kilocalories of healthy food to pack on 25 pounds over the course of a month would provide information regarding the effects of excess fat accumulation alone. Conversely, ingesting the appropriate number of kilocalories to maintain appropriate fat stores, but deriving that energy from the worst foods imaginable would provide insight regarding the importance of what you ingest.

Interestingly, the latter approach appears to be exemplified by a teenage girl from Birmingham, England. A recent story in the UK's Daily Mail reported that Stacey Irvine was rushed to the hospital after she collapsed and was struggling to breath at her factory job. It turns out that Stacey had never eaten fruits or vegetables during her 17 years, but had dined on chicken nuggets and chips.

In fact, she had eaten little else since the age of two and, apparently, as a result, was suffering from anemia and inflamed veins on her tongue. But while a 20-piece serving of McDonalds Chicken McNuggets contains a whopping 926 kilocalories of energy, the important thing to note was that Stacey was not overweight. This means that the energy content of the diet imposed by her food addiction was the correct amount to maintain a healthy body weight for her despite the fact that the composition of her diet was anything but healthy. Indeed, doctors warned Stacey that if she does not drastically change what she eats, she would suffer serious long-term health repercussions as a result.

The fact of the matter is that most people's dietary habits are driven by the desire to achieve an ideal and that ideal is often dictated more by physical appearance, as opposed to an actual state of health. This is a function of societal norms, which dictate that the amount of body fat we carry is a major factor that establishes our attractiveness or lack thereof. But this absence of an emphasis on health is alarming, particularly considering findings that continue to support the notion that healthy eating can result in a "fit-and-fat" state.

For example, a recent study conducted at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and published on-line in Diabetes Care reveals that improvements in health remain after subjects adopt a two-year healthy eating program that results in weight loss even if the lost weight is eventually regained. The bottom line is that while maintaining an ideal body weight is absolutely linked to better health, you can achieve important health changes that signify decreased risk for cardiovascular disease even if you carry excess body fat so long as a healthy eating regimen is maintained.

Fred DiMenna is a two-time Natural Mr. United States and retired WNBF drug-free professional bodybuilder who has a PhD in exercise physiology from Exeter University's School of Sport and Health Sciences in the U.K. Visit him at www.freddimenna.com or email him: mrnaturalus@yahoo.com