Boosting metabolism is still an incredibly popular topic in the health blogosphere. While I’m not saying this is impossible (because it’s not), what would you say if I told you that perhaps the first logical step towards increasing your metabolism is to stop slowing it down yourself.
Metabolism sums all the chemical processes in your body, especially those that cause food to be used in an efficient way, to give you energy and to make new cells. I’m sure you heard people blaming their metabolism for their weight problems and saying they get fat even by drinking a glass of water.
Of course, they are exaggerating, but it is true, the speed of metabolism or metabolic rate influences our weight. Many personal factors affect our metabolism, including our genetics, metabolic type, food intolerance, sleep, stress and emotional health.
Some people naturally have a better working metabolism than others, but even so, a balanced diet can help them maintain it, and at the opposite pole – unhealthy eating habits sustained for longer periods of time can most certainly ruin the gift they received from God. You can only imagine how the wrong diet can add up to other problems, for those who haven’t been naturally blessed with the ability to digest and absorb nutrients efficiently.
You might be surprised that some of the foods responsible for slowing down metabolism (or at the very least preventing it from working properly) are not just incredibly popular, but even promoted as healthy.
Although the general belief is that fruit juice is healthy and often we include it in our breakfast, the fact is this beverage is full of sugar and should be consumed in moderation.
Sugar creates a spike in blood glucose levels and is very quickly absorbed into our system. This triggers our body to store extra fat and burn fewer calories. Unfortunately, the fruit juice we buy nowadays is full of food coloring, flavorings and added sugar.
Furthermore, often commercial fruit juices can be stored in tanks for up to 1 year and obviously many of the initial nutrients are lost by the time they reach the shelves. Let’s not forget about fructose – that sugar that’s naturally present in fruit. Excessive consumption of fructose has been linked to insulin resistance, leptin resistance, increased caloric intake and a whole host of other problems. Sugar addiction is not just a myth, it’s very real and fruit juices are just as guilty as sugary sodas, candies, cookies and other sweetened, processed foods.
Don’t drink your fruits – eat them! One glass of apple juice is made out of 3-4 apples, drink two of those a day and you just ingested the sugar equivalent of 6 to 8 apples. Would you eat THAT MANY apples a day? No you wouldn’t. The limited amount of fructose found in a real, whole fruit is not health-threatening because eating the fruit offers chew resistance thanks to the skin and flesh, which also contain good amounts of fiber. Therefore, you would have to eat A LOT of fruit to reach those harmful amounts of fructose, which on the other hand can easily happen if you’re drinking fruit juice.
Drink infused fruit water instead – just add your favorite combination of fruits, pour water on top of them and voila! You have all that fruity flavor in your water, but without the sugar. Or maybe just an unsweetened lemonade or lemon water – let’s not forget the numerous benefits lemon juice has for digestion.
Other healthy drink alternatives include herbal teas, kombucha and coconut water – and if you do want to sweeten these drinks a bit (although moderation applies in this case as well), skip the sugar and use raw honey or stevia instead (read more on healthy, low calorie sweeteners below).
Artificial sweeteners, also called sugar substitutes, are compounds that offer the sweetness of sugar without the same calories. They are anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar but with zero calories, so it seems we get all the benefits of sugar, without it’s side effects.
Do we really? The results of studies on artificial sweeteners are mixed, but there’s no definitive proof that they’re actually good for us. What we do know is that exposing our taste buds to those high intensity sweeteners makes them less receptive to natural sources of sweetness, such as fruits and we are likely to seek out sweeter and sweeter food. Taste can be trained for any flavor. Eat more crave more. Eat less, crave less. It’s that simple.
Because they are very sweet and have no calories, these products interfere with our body’s hunger signals. Part of this effect has to do with the hormone insulin. When you taste sweet foods, even if they have zero calories, your body still releases insulin as if you’d eaten sugar. Insulin leads to blood sugar spikes, which increase cravings, so you may be consuming more calories because of your growing appetite. Even if you only consume artificial sweeteners on occasions, they’re just not worth the risk. Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose – avoid them all!
Now, before you get too excited remember too much of anything is bad for you – even plain water. Nevertheless, when consumed moderately, there are some natural, low-calorie sweeteners, which are actually healthy.
These are stevia, erythritol, xylitol and yacon syrup. None of them cause spikes in insulin and blood sugar levels, in fact stevia can actually lower blood sugar for diabetics and blood pressure (but only when it’s already high). This makes it a particularly good choice if you have diabetes and/or high blood pressure, but it’s also one of the best alternatives for healthy people as well.
It’s time to bust another myth concerning healthy eating. Studies show that whole wheat is in fact an enemy of our metabolism and a set-back in weight loss efforts. Gluten, starch and phytic acid are some of the compounds of wheat which have a negative impact on our metabolism.
Gluten is the main protein found in wheat and a few other grains like rye, spelt and barley. Gluten can cause inflammation and there is also evidence that it can make the lining of the intestine more permeable, potentially allowing partially digested substances to ‘leak’ from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
Phytic Acid is a mineral blocker which prevents absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc. And finally, starch turns into sugar quickly, and we already discussed its effect upon our metabolism. Whole wheat and refined wheat have the same glycemic index so regardless which you eat, your blood sugar will spike.
Concerning nutrients and fiber, whole wheat offers slightly more of them, compared to its refined counterpart, but practically all of them are available in much higher amounts in other foods.
Can there be life without bread and pasta? Yes, of course! But these foods don’t need to be made with wheat. Without further ado, we present…..
Quinoa – Check out this pseudo-cereal’s nutritional profile and you’ll be amazed at the incredible amount of minerals found in this tiny little grain. Furthermore, it is rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and it has a low glycemic index. Another important benefit of quinoa is it’s gluten-free. This makes it a great alternative to wheat for people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance but also for vegans and vegetarians as it contains all essential amino-acids.
There’s just one problem with quinoa – just like whole wheat, it also contains phytic acid (we already discussed how it affects us). You can however, get rid of most of it, by soaking or sprouting quinoa before cooking.
Teff grain is another healthy and gluten-free alternative to wheat and it can successfully replace wheat flour in a variety of recipes such as breads, pancakes, pies, breakfast cereal and others. But this miniature sized grain is not just versatile, it’s also super healthy. Check out our detailed post on teff’s health benefits and popular recipes for a bit of inspiration.
Truth be told, there are so many foods that can replace wheat (which I’m going to detail in a future article) and besides the ones mentioned above, you can (and should) try to include oats and amaranth in your diet. There are others, of course, but I feel like these two superfoods are not getting the attention they truly deserve.
Granola is another food with a good reputation among people who are careful with their diet. But at a closer look, granola is not really what it seems, because nowadays there are many versions of it, full of fats and sugar. We’re not against fats in general, but manufacturers do tend to use refined vegetable oils (the worst possible kind, health-wise) to keep the costs down, and when a product is labeled ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ it usually means there’s more sugar and artificial flavors in it.
There are some healthy ingredients in granola such as oats and nuts, but taking the oils and sugar into account as well, it’s really far from a ‘health food’.
Make your own – this is the one and only budget friendly alternative, that makes granola actually good for your health (although consumed in small amounts, because it still has a high calorie density). Use some of those healthy sweeteners we already discussed and good fats like olive and coconut oil to make it. Here’s one of our favorite recipes, that makes an excellent place to start your homemade granola experiment.
Buy the good stuff – as more and more people are become health conscious, there’s an increased demand for processed foods made with healthy ingredients (not everything ‘processed’ is bad for you). Obviously you can find granola made with natural fruits, oats and nuts which is also not chalked full of chemicals usually added to make it more flavorful and expand its shelf-life. The price tag is a good indicator of the quality of a granola bar, but still we recommend you carefully read the list of ingredients before making your choice.
Canola oil is actually rapeseed oil but it is extracted from rapeseeds that have been bred to contain less of some unfavorable substances. Most of the world’s canola crop is genetically modified. This type of oil is made with a highly unnatural processing method that involves high heat, deodorization and the toxic solvent hexane. Significant amounts of trans fats are formed during this process.
Canola oil goes through processing and refining, which strips it of omega-3s (most of them, anyway) and creates trans fats which are anything but natural or healthy for that matter. These trans fats, especially when consumed regularly lead to inflamed tissues and hormone disruption.
What’s rather tricky about canola oil is it contains a 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. In theory, this is just perfect but not if you take into account which type of omega-3 we’re talking about. The ones found in canola oil are ALAs which our bodies need to convert to EPA and then to DHA in order to be usable. Sadly, the human organism is not very good at converting ALA to DHA, which means canola oil’s fatty acid ratio is not what it seems.
Most refined, plant-based oils, are manufactured in a similar way, so practically none of them can be classified as health foods. There’s nothing wrong with the plants themselves. Cold-pressed, unrefined canola and other vegetable oils don’t include the trans fats created during the refining process and are definitely of superior quality, health-wise.
Since canola oil is widely used for cooking, we’re going to look at alternatives which are resistant to high temperatures.
The definitive winner would be coconut oil in this case. Virgin coconut oil is over 90% saturated fats (which have been unfairly demonized for a very long time), and the fatty acids it contains are actually able to increase HDL (good) cholesterol. On top of that, coconut oil has a high smoke point (350 °F /177 °C) so it’s excellent as a cooking fat.
Other healthy fats which are also heat resistant are virgin olive oil (it’s safe to cook with it at moderately high temperatures, such as for pan frying, sauteing and boiling), lard, butter, and clarified butter for high heat cooking. Perhaps the one most important thing that makes these fats healthy is the quality of their source. Fat from organic, grass-fed animals and cold-pressed virgin plant oils from reputable manufacturers make all the difference in the world.
Most commercial peanut butter products are far from what they should be. In theory, peanut butter should be made of raw or roasted peanuts with nothing else added. In reality, store-bought peanut butter often has loads of added sugar, artificial flavors and coloring and other chemicals we can’t even pronounce when reading the label. This kind of product is not even worth taking into consideration, as no matter how healthy the base ingredients might be, what’s added on top turns it into a highly processed and unhealthy food. So we’re going to talk about real peanut butter, the one that’s definitely not among the cheapest or you make it yourself at home only from peanuts and optionally a pinch of salt.
Firstly, peanut butter is about 50% fat (with the rest roughly divided among carbs and protein) and 100 grams of the stuff has 588 calories. A lot of people (myself included) have a hard time stopping only after a small amount of PB so it’s high calorie load makes it very easy to overeat it.
Secondly, the peanut oil found in peanut butter which makes for about 70% of the total calories is rich in Omega 6 fatty acids but has little to no Omega 3s. In case you didn’t already know, the Western diet is already laden with Omega 6 and doesn’t include anywhere near the recommended amount of Omega 3 fatty acids. An Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio that is too high (meaning too much Omega 6 compared to Omega 3) has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammation.
It’s OK to eat peanut butter in moderation – PB contains significant amounts of several nutrients like vitamins B3 and B6, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese and lower amounts of other micronutrients. Some people can easily binge on peanut butter, if such is your case, the better alternative would be to avoid it completely.
Almond butter – Technically speaking, almond butter is the most nutrient rich nut butter, including important minerals like calcium and magnesium. While it still has a very high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio, it’s significantly lower than the one of peanut butter. Buying a quality almond butter from the store would be more expensive than peanut butter, but it’s so easy (and much cheaper) to make at home. All you really need are almonds and a food processor!
Coconut butter – Coconut oil is the hype right now, but if you never tried coconut butter…you’re in for a treat! The real deal should be made of dehydrated coconut flesh so you get all the benefits of coconut oil plus the nutrients from coconut flesh (which you can make yourself too). While you don’t get too many nutrients from this particular butter, what’s most interesting about it are those medium-chain fatty acids (also found in coconut oil) that are beneficial for health. Also, it contains only a very small amount of omega 6 fatty acids, and no omega 3s. It might sound like a bad thing, but at the very least this is a nut butter that won’t throw your omega 3 to omega 6 ratio out of balance.
Other nut and seed butters – Many other nut and seed butters like hazelnut, cashew, have some nutrients and health benefits to offer, but you should really eat only low amounts. Absolutely all nut and seed butters are heavy on the calories, rich in fat and the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is quite high. An interesting option you should definitely consider is walnut butter – just look at that omega 3 to omega 6 ratio, it’s about 1:4 – pretty impressive right?
As the world’s most popular recreational drug, alcohol intake is a double-edged sword. Alcohol abuse can be devastating health-wise, in so much more ways than by just affecting your metabolism.
Heavy and frequent drinking can lead to increased fat inside liver cells (also known as fatty liver), alcoholic liver diseases like cirrhosis, impaired brain function (it has also been linked to increased risk of dementia), increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and mouth and oral cancer, among others.
Regarding weight gain, heavy drinkers are prone to gaining extra pounds, because the 7 calories per gram of alcohol cannot just disappear into thin air. However, it also depends on preferences – for example regular beer drinking has been associated with higher waist circumference, but if you opt for wine instead, the results may be exactly the opposite.
There’s really no substitute for alcohol, but there are several factors you need to take into account, as drinking alcohol is not all bad, if done properly.
Moderation is key – We just talked about how alcohol abuse is linked to dementia. It looks like moderate drinking may actually lower the risk. Also, moderate drinking can reduce the disk of other conditions like type 2 diabetes (by lowering insulin resistance), weight gain, and even raise HDL (‘good’) cholesterol levels.
What you drink is also important – There is one particular alcoholic drink that’s been linked to various health benefits when consumed in moderation (1 drink per day for women and 2 for men) and that is red wine. It’s high antioxidant levels have been shown to protect the body against oxidative damage, increase life span and reduce the risk of stroke among others.
Nutrition is complicated – it’s not just about looking at the nutritional analysis of a certain food. What can be incredibly healthy for one individual, could make another sick or sicker. Before you decide to throw something on your ‘health foods’ list, take into account any conditions you might have, your diet in general and your physical activity level. As an example, protein rich diets can be extremely beneficial for healthy individuals, but can also make things worse for those with kidney disease.
What other commonly popular foods touted as healthy are you trying to avoid and what alternatives have you found for them?
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