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Prevention of nutritional displacement

Verhinderung ernährungstechnischer Verdrängung

Does anyone want coffee?

I have this friend who loves to go out for coffee with women. Wait, let me get this straight. He loves to go for coffee with exceptionally good-looking women. Almost every time I call this guy in the afternoon, he's on one of his hot little coffee dates.

I know what you're thinking. "Going out for coffee" must be a clever euphemism we use for sex. What testosterone-loaded powerhouse athlete is going to sit around drinking coffee all day when he could be doing "wilder things" with said hot women. But my boyfriend keeps assuring me that these "coffee dates" are crucial components of his dating style - and his success. Intrigued by this, I decided to give these coffee dates a try,

The origin of obesity?

So here I am sitting in my favorite cafe across from my "coffee girlfriend". We got off to a good start. We laugh, she plays with her hair and she reaches across the table and touches my arm after I make a particularly witty comment.

I order a green tea, a carafe of water and two chicken breast sandwiches (no bread, no mayonnaise, double portion of vegetables). As it's my cheat day, I order a portion of warm apple pie for dessert. With a "where are you stuffing all this" look, my coffee friend orders a chocolate brownie and a double latte. Then it happens: she starts asking me nutritional questions.

I groan inwardly. Just 15 minutes and we're talking about the topic I try to avoid when I'm off work - and especially when I'm just getting to know someone. It's better to introduce people to my dietary ideas slowly than to jump straight in on the first date. My damn boyfriend and his damn "coffee dates".

But then, during the rest of the conversation, which wasn't bad as initially feared, something else happened. While talking to my coffee girlfriend about nutrition, I realized that during this meal I got a very clear insight into the causes of obesity in the western world.

Now this girl was definitely not overweight. She was young, thin and really hot. But in 10 or 20 years she will be overweight if she continues to regularly eat chocolate brownies and frappuchinos for lunch, bagels and coffee for breakfast (her favorite breakfast choice), sugary soft drinks during the day and casseroles for dinner.

Of course, obesity is not imminent in her case. She is a young, intelligent and fairly disciplined woman and she will probably be able to control her eating habits (i.e. not overdo it with her total daily calorie intake) enough to avoid the threat of obesity. However, it is also a fact that simply watching portion sizes is not enough to achieve optimal body composition and health.

Nutritional suppression: The "treats only" diet

At this point, some of you may be thinking "Wait a minute, didn't you just order apple pie yourself? Why are you picking on them when you're just as guilty as they are when it comes to pie?" Sorry, but this mindset is flawed.

There's a big difference between a healthy diet that includes the occasional unhealthy treat and a diet that consists solely of those treats. In the former, less healthy foods are consumed less frequently and in combination with healthy foods. In the latter diet, less healthy or unhealthy foods are consumed frequently and in place of healthy foods. This is called nutritional crowding out and must be avoided if optimal body composition and health are your goals.

Sure, I enjoyed a piece of sugar-laden junk food - that was one of the two treats I indulged in that week. But just looking at the junk food we had eaten only represents an incomplete part of the whole picture. The presence of bad foods in both of our diets is less important than the absence of healthy foods in hers.

To be specific, I ate a small amount of junk food in addition to my antioxidant-rich, protein-rich, nutrient-dense meal, which was only one of seven meals I ate that day - and that was only one of seven days that week. And she ate some junk food. Period.

She started her day with junk food, she ate junk food for lunch, and she filled the rest of her day with junk food. I got all the antioxidants, micronutrients and protein I needed, while she spent the entire day eating the nutritional equivalent of cardboard.

Based on our activity levels and our basic metabolic needs, we probably both met our energy needs for the day (in terms of energy supplied vs. energy expended) but I also actually ate some food. She only ate calories and her calories came from what we call "displacing foods".

The bagel, brownie and latte, sugary drinks, etc. she consumed were consumed in place of healthy foods. So basically, her empty calories have displaced the good foods with high nutrient density that she could have otherwise eaten. She ate nothing but empty calories - calories that are stored rather than burned, calories that make health worse or do nothing to improve health, calories that made her hungry and fixated on food throughout the day, and calories that made her tired an hour or two after eating them.

I ate 49 healthy meals and two treats during the same week. She only had treats. That's a big difference, isn't it?

Convenience and calories: overeating and undereating

Do you know someone like this gal? Chances are you know many individuals like her! In the US alone, there are 129.6 million overweight people and probably many more who are well on their way there, like my coffee friend. These statistics beg the question, how do otherwise intelligent people trade good food for empty calories? Although the explanation is likely to be complex, there are a few simple answers that come to mind.

First of all, I think that people in the Western world strive for nutritional convenience. Sure, when the typical person goes to a restaurant for a nice dinner, they usually eat a decent meal, but the majority of people choose each meal based on speed and convenience.

A nice egg and spinach omelet with oatmeal and pineapple on the side takes some time to prepare and eat. A bagel and coffee, on the other hand, can be eaten on the way to work. In our quest for speed and convenience, we don't get much good food. That's the reason we overeat and undernourish at the same time and that's also the reason why people, even though they eat so much, still suffer from deficiencies.

Secondly, I think we pay too much attention to calories. Most people who make bad food choices are not stupid. They know that if they want to be slim, they can only eat a certain amount of calories. If they eat more, they either immediately feel guilty or they run straight to the gym for a marathon cardio session to burn off the extra calories.

In trying to balance on this thin line of energy balance, they realize that if they were to eat good, healthy foods (e.g. marinated chicken breast with spinach salad and a serving of fruit) they would be eating a lot of calories that just don't taste as good as the brownies they are craving. In this sense, the healthy food would crowd out the tasty junk food they love to eat.

In an attempt to get the yummy brownie calories, they decide to throw the calories out of their diet in the form of healthy chicken and spinach. In their minds, a calorie is a calorie, so they simply eat a brownie instead of chicken and stay just as thin. Thin is synonymous with healthy in our society. They don't realize that they are risking loss of lean body mass, a slowing of their metabolic rate, micronutrient deficiencies and all kinds of diet-related health problems including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and syndrome-x (basically insulin resistance).

It's hard to stay lean when metabolic rate drops as a result of inadequate protein intake and low thermic effect of food. Metabolic rate takes another hit from a lack of healthy fats - not to mention decreasing muscle mass.

It's also quite hard to stay lean if you suffer from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and/or syndrome-x. To confirm this view, we need only look at the fact that obesity rates have doubled in the last 20 years, while daily energy intake has not increased as much.

Americans and the rest of the Western world are not just getting so damn fat and unhealthy because of excessive food intake. Often healthy foods are being replaced with mega portions of sugar, trans fats and other unhealthy food ingredients. The good foods have the power to negate the effects of these bad, unhealthy junk food ingredients, but because people are too obsessed with their energy balance, they simply replace the good stuff.

If people simply followed a diet rich in protein, antioxidants and micronutrients and fortified it with junk food, they would be slimmer and healthier than those who eat the same amount of calories (and often even fewer calories) in the form of empty calories.

Cheat meals

People often ask me what I think about cheat meals. Basically, what they want to know is, "Do I have to eat clean all the time?" The answer is a qualified "yes." You should plan your diet in advance, choose only clean foods, and then eat everything on your plan. One or two days a week, if you want to, you can eat foods in addition to - and not instead of - healthy foods that wouldn't normally be on your plan.

I usually eat these foods at the end of the day when I'm already satiated with lean meats, essential fatty acids, fruits and vegetables. This tends to limit my ability to feast on treats. Of course, these calories should be cut first during strict fat loss phases.

Bottom line: as long as you're not replacing good calories, you can eat something sweet once in a while.

Paralysis by analysis

Now that we've talked about how nutritious foods are replaced by unhealthy foods and empty calories, I want to talk about another problem of dietary displacement. While "displacing" foods is probably at the root of many of our health and body composition issues, what I would call "displacement discussions" have become a real problem. According to my discussion, a displacement debate is a discussion that instead of helping people make healthier food choices, simply serves to confuse and paralyze people.

The average citizen of the Western world, for example, knows very little about what carbohydrates, protein or fat are. When these people hear respected health authority experts recommending high-carbohydrate diets, while at the same time Atkins followers recommend low-carbohydrate diets, these people become so confused and frustrated by this that they end up doing little or nothing to improve their health.

This discussion is an example of a displacement debate: an academic debate that pushes the more important issues out of the social discourse. For the average citizen of the Western world, both following the health experts' recommendation of a healthy, high-carb diet and following the Atkins recommendations would go a long way toward better health. But instead of recommending that people just do anything, these two groups argue over who is right at the expense of the ever-increasing obesity rate.

Below, I'll share six of the most interesting displacement debates I've stumbled across recently. By elaborating on these, I can hopefully put to rest the idea that these issues are of vital importance to your health and body composition.

I want you to understand that these are minor details that are only relevant to a small percentage of the population - if that. By and large, these discussions confuse and paralyze people more than encourage them to take their health into their own hands.

The top 6 displacement discussions

1. is fruit bad now?

We all know that fruit provides fiber, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, so it should come as no surprise that many experts recommend eating a few servings of fruit a day.

And yet some experts out there (short-sighted experts with a lack of perspective, I might add) suggest that fruit might be bad for us. This is utter nonsense.

Imagine that you are someone who has had less than optimal eating habits all your life (for some of the readers, this might not be too difficult) and that you are exposed to this discussion. What would you do? Well, nine out of ten sufferers will think that if there's a chance that fruit is bad for them, they might as well give up fruit - and treat themselves to a Big Mac instead. After all, it tastes much better.

The verdict: eat the damn fruit.

2. raw? Organic?

Speaking of fruit (and vegetables), it's often recommended that the average person should eat two portions of fruit and three portions of vegetables as a bare minimum. Athletes probably need even more. And yet most people in the western world (athletes included) eat far less than this recommended amount.

But instead of simply recommending more fruit and vegetables (in whatever form you eat them, as any fruit and vegetables are better than none), experts spend their time arguing about canned vs. raw fruit and vegetables. And then they argue about raw fruits and vegetables vs. organic fruits and vegetables. I agree here - organic fruit and vegetables are best as they are likely to be higher in micronutrients and lower in contaminants, but let's be honest: any kind of fruit and vegetables is better than none!

So again, imagine that you are someone who has always had bad eating habits and are now being subjected to this whole discussion. What would you do? Well, you'd probably give up the fruit and veg, wait for the experts to debate this issue once and for all and grab a Snickers instead.

The verdict: make sure your diet includes enough fruit and vegetables before you worry about organic fruit and vegetables. If you've ensured the former, then it's time to work on the latter.

3. raw milk vs. regular milk

What about milk? If we could simply get more people to drink milk instead of sugary soft drinks, we'd have fewer problems with obesity and disease. But instead of focusing on healthy behaviors, experts argue about the benefits of raw milk over regular milk. All this does is bring negative attention to milk and a distraction from other healthy choices people could be making.

Sure, if we could get raw milk that was guaranteed to be germ-free, then it would be better than processed, pasteurized milk. But what will the hypothetical suboptimal eater do in light of this discussion? Well, nine times out of ten, they will avoid both types of milk and drink cola instead.

The verdict: give up sugary drinks and drink milk instead, or better still, calorie-free drinks.

4. tap water vs. mineral water

Speaking of drinks, many people are poorly hydrated because they drink too little water and too many caffeinated, dehydrating drinks (coffee, soft drinks and alcohol). Poor hydration leads to all kinds of health problems.

But instead of simply promoting the consumption of more water, experts debate whether mineral water is better than tap water. Certainly, a good mineral water can be the better choice, but at the same time, don't be one of those people who stay away from tap water, forget to buy their water bottles and simply stay poorly hydrated.

The verdict: make sure you're drinking enough water first and only then worry about the source.

5. glass vs. plastic

And what about the bottles the water comes in? Yes, the glass vs. plastic debate. Just yesterday I recommended to a group of my athletes to get some Tupperware containers so they can prepare all their meals and shakes in the morning. It's much easier to make good food choices when you have all your good food pre-cooked and ready to eat.

After this talk, one of the athletes came up to me and told me that he completely avoids Tupperware because of the potential phytoestrogens that can leak out. When I asked him what he keeps his food in, he told me that he doesn't plan his meals in advance. He also told me that he needed to lose 15 pounds because he was overweight and his diet was poor.

Guys, I agree that glass containers are marginally better than plastic, but for God's sake get plastic containers if it helps you plan your meals. And that was a world-class athlete. You can imagine what the average athlete will do.

The verdict: Plan your meals in advance and store them - if necessary - in woven baskets. Buy the containers you can afford. If you can find glass containers - great - if not, just get plastic containers.

6. meat from pasture-raised livestock vs. barn-raised meat

Most strength athletes eat a lot of protein and that's no mistake. One of the best ways to get all that protein is to eat plenty of protein- and micronutrient-rich lean meats. Protein supplements are fine when it comes to supplementing your diet, but real food should make up the base of your diet and when it comes to protein, there's nothing better than good old-fashioned meat.

Since eating more protein can increase your metabolic rate, aid your weight loss, increase your protein turnover, speed up your training adaptations and (when replacing carbohydrates) reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, it should be clear that most people would be well advised to increase their consumption of lean meat.

So imagine the consternation someone might experience when they hear that experts are now arguing about the amount of meat we consume. Many experts are telling people, as part of the pasture-raised vs. barn-raised meat debate, that meat from grain-fed livestock (the only kind of meat you can find in many supermarkets) is full of toxins, bad fats and hormones.

Sure, meat from pasture-raised cattle is probably the better choice, even if there isn't much evidence that the alleged toxins and hormones are actually transferred to humans. But again, imagine someone who has been following poor dietary habits their whole life being exposed to this whole lean meat discussion. What is that person going to do? Well, if you're afraid of the type of meat you have access to, you'll shy away from all types of lean meat and go for another bagel. Bad decision.

The verdict: Find the best meat you can by going to multiple supermarkets and butchers. But don't shy away from eating the meat you find in your supermarket - the reports that this will mean your imminent death are extremely exaggerated.


These are just some of the displacement debates circulating around nutrition. Throughout our lives we will come into contact with new experts, new diet plans and new "revolutionary systems". Instead of letting these new ideas become a source of frustration and confusion, do your best to get past the marginalia and the differences between all the new programs and try to find for yourself the best underlying principles on which all the successful programs are built.

Most importantly, if you have a choice between two good options, one of which is marginally better than the other and both ideas are an improvement over what you are currently doing, simply choose one of these options and put it into action. You can always optimize later, as long as you make improvements now.


By John Berardi, PhD

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