Saturday, June 6, 2009

The TRUTH ABOUT EATING RIGHT the who, what, where, when how and why of the proper diet

Probably one of the most common questions I get as a fitness expert is “what should I be eating?” It makes sense to me that people don’t know what to eat because there is an abundance of available foods and so much conflicting information out there.
Interestingly enough, it seems to me like many people do actually know what they should be eating, but don’t do it because they don’t know how to incorporate it into their lifestyle in a way that works for them or they just simply aren’t willing to change their lifestyle.

Another reason for the confusion is that there are plenty of big, powerful entities out there who are dedicated to keeping us ill-informed. For example, snack food companies need to keep us confused about fat and sugar. If we were well informed, we’d buy a lot less of their junk. And “health food” companies need to keep us confused about what is and isn’t healthy in order to sell their products. A quick example is “Wheat Flour” listed on the label. Guess what? Your regular old white flour is made of wheat. It’s been stripped and bleached and made into that dangerous white stuff. Now that the general public is becoming more aware that they need to choose whole wheat flour over white flour, I’ve noticed food-makers are changing their labels from “flour” or “white flour” to “wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour” which is the same thing. If it is whole wheat flour it will say “WHOLE wheat flour.” And if the whole grain isn’t present in the product, they can’t say it.

Anyway, when learning to make proper food choices, the first thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t one single answer for everyone. We all have different body types and different needs from our food, so there can’t be one single answer. So, what I am going to do is give you the basic, most simplified, distilled truths about eating food. I will break it down into big, useable chunks and try to stick to only the information that will bring you the most health benefits. Following this advice, you will be giving your body what it needs to be its best. Of course, there are changes you could make to what I’m about to lay out. You will need to slightly tailor these guidelines if you want to maximize your fat loss, maximize your muscle gain, maximize your flexibility etc. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you simply want to achieve or maintain optimum health and fitness. The basics.

I could write a whole book on this issue, but I want to make it short and sweet. So, here is the short answer.

WHAT (you should be eating):


lean meat:
beef - sirloin, round, flank or extra lean ground (grass-fed is best)

poultry - stick to skinless, white, breast meat (free range is best)

fish - all types, including crab, shrimp and lobster

eggs (grass fed is best)

skim milk (occasionally 1%, but avoid 2% or whole milk)

non fat cottage cheese (occasionally 1%, but avoid 2% or whole)




all vegetables

brown rice (steamed)

oatmeal (not instant)

whole grain breads and cereals

non sweetened, non- or low-fat yogurt

all fresh fruit (including avocados)


oils (cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil, grass fed butter, flax seed oil, coconut oil or hemp oil are good)

nuts (raw, unsalted)


this is a crucial element and an entire essay to itself.

And you should NOT be eating:


white bread

any fried food

processed cheese (ironically, it’s usually labeled as “cheese food”)

whole fat dairy products including cheese, milk and yogurt

bacon, sausage or any processed deli meat

high sugar cereals

processed peanut butter (only eat if the ingredients label ONLY says “Peanuts and salt, period” the salt is optional)


soft drinks including Snapple (even “diet” types)

fruit juice (unless you witness it being made from the fruit)

cookies, cakes, pies, pastries and crackers

ice cream

fast food burgers



most pizza (choose whole wheat crusts, non fat cheese and no meat)

And that’s it, in a nutshell. I consider this the basics. Barring food allergies or special considerations, the fact is, if you want to remain healthy, lean, fit, energetic and beautiful, you need to follow the advice of those two lists as closely as you can. Think of it this way, the more closely you follow the lists, the more healthy you will be. Now, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t have any of the foods on the ‘bad’ list and you’d only choose foods from the ‘good’ list. But the truth is, this isn’t a perfect world. So you need to be aware of how often you make choices from the first list and make those the staples of your diet. Treat the foods on the second list as occasional departures from the norm. Consider that every bite you take from a food on my forbidden list will move you in the direction away from your goal.


To answer the question of WHO I will address vegetarianism...

I am a practicing yogi. I understand that there are plenty of good reasons for vegetarianism. I follow many of the yogic principles beyond just the physical asanas. And although one of the tenets of the yogic texts are to eat a meatless diet, I still eat meat.

I believe the planet would be a much better place if we ALL made the switch to a plant based diet. The amount of water wasted on the beef industry alone is staggering. The largest grain crop in the country is grown solely for the purpose of feeding cattle. If we grew grain only for eating, we could feed the world with what we are already currently growing. Methane gases released from cattle are a significant factor in the growing toxicity of our atmosphere. The pesticides and antibiotics fed to cattle end up in their meat and then in our stomachs. The kind of fat you consume in meat is like eating glue and is a real culprit in our deteriorating health as a society.

I did experiment with vegetarianism about ten years ago. I gave it a good shot for about two years. A surprising benefit was that my kitchen was remarkably clean. Without animal fat, it never got greasy. The dishes washed up with a quick rinse and the counters wiped off cleanly without seeming to need any kind of cleaner. (Of course, I did still use a light, organic cleanser on both the dishes and the counters.) I lost quite a lot of weight, too. However, the weight I lost wasn’t exclusively fat weight. I was losing a lot of muscle tissue as well. When I look back at photos of myself during that time, I think I looked a little bit sick. And that’s not just because I was turning orange from to all of the beta carotene I was consuming. I was just gaunt.

In the end, my conclusion was that it was simply too difficult to get enough protein for my needs. Perhaps, for someone with a less active lifestyle and someone not concerned with building or maintaining a lot of muscle tissue, it might be doable. But I have a very active lifestyle and maintain an athletic, muscular build. Without animal protein, I actually became anemic and had a naturopathic doctor advise me that I should be eating meat in order to get enough iron and protein in my body.

These days, I spend an average of one month of every three following a fairly vegetarian diet. I focus on eating mostly green vegetables and grains, almost completely eliminate dairy products and greatly reduce my meat consumption. During that month, I am mostly focused on stretching, flexibility and fat loss. On the other hand, for the other two months, I am typically more active, and include weight training in my fitness program. My focus is to build and/or maintain muscle tissue and I base my diet around protein surrounded by lots of vegetables. And I don’t shy away from using meat sources, although I do also use a lot of fish, eggs and dairy.

I respect moral and religious stances against eating meat. I am well aware of all of the arguments for vegetarianism. But it is my belief that the world is full of animals killing and eating other animals for food. It’s not murder, it’s life. I am in pursuit of an above average physique and cannot risk not getting enough good quality protein in my diet. Even though I do eat meat, I always try to opt for organic, free range and antibiotic free meat and poultry whenever possible. So, I advise my clients seeking high levels of fitness to follow the same sensible diet that I do; which includes lots of fresh vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats and lean meats. Of course, those who are simply looking to be healthy and maintain a normal body weight, will find it very possible to do so on a strictly vegetarian diet as long as they are careful to include the proper balance of nutrients as described in the HOW section.

I also believe that a vegetarian who eats eggs, fish and dairy products would be in a better position to balance their beliefs and their desire to be exceptionally fit.


This is an important concept. Tragically overlooked quite often. To answer the question of “WHERE” I’m going to suggest to you that what you eat is not going to make a bit of difference if you can’t properly digest it. It’s not the food that goes into your mouth that matters, but the food that can properly get broken down into its basic elements and used by your body for whatever purpose it needs them for. The concept of “WHERE you eat” implies that you must not eat under stress. The more relaxed you can be when you are eating, the better you will be able to utilize the nutritive value of your meal.

We have two nervous systems as human beings. Put simply, one for when we are relaxed and one for when we are under stress. The sympathetic nervous system is the “flight or fight mode.” Let’s say you see a lion coming at you. That’s stressful. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and prepares your body by shutting off blood flow to the less important body functions (like digestion) and increasing blood flow to the more important ones (like legs and lungs, for running.) You will be producing more adrenalin and less digestive fluid. That is an extreme example. But loud music, screeching brakes, foul odors and passionate discussions are also stressors. To get the most out of your meal you should be operating with your parasympathetic nervous system in charge.

You should avoid being engaged in heated discussions or arguments while eating. In fact, you should really limit conversations to a minimum while eating.

Definitely do not eat while walking. Do not eat in an environment where you cannot see or smell what you are eating. Eating in a bathroom stall or in the subway station, therefore, are bad ideas. Eating quickly will also limit your food’s effectiveness. As will the good old “eat and run.”

So this means that, for the best results, you should eat sitting down in a pleasant, clean environment. Eat in a nice, quiet place where you can see, taste, and smell your food. Have limited conversation and keep it light. Eat slowly and savor the flavors in your meal. Finish eating before you are completely full. (don’t ‘stuff’ yourself) and sit quietly for a few minutes after your meal before getting on with the rest of your life.

When I see someone walking down the street, talking loudly on a cell phone and stuffing a pizza in their mouths, my heart sinks. Don’t let yourself be that oaf. Respect yourself. It’s not complicated, nor difficult. But it does make a big difference in the way your body receives its nourishment.


In this section I will discuss the timing of your meals. This is an important concept to master if you want to be in charge of your body weight. You’ve probably heard that breakfast is ‘the most important meal of the day’ but do you know why? The truth is that once your body goes a few hours without food, it reacts by slowing down the metabolism. When you first wake up in the morning, you have been “fasting” for eight hours and your metabolism is extremely slow. Immediately upon waking you need to “break the fast” and eat something so that your metabolism gets revved up again.

Our typical American diet is way off, and following it can make it impossible to maintain a healthy body weight, or to gain muscle or lose fat. The first mistake that many people make is they don’t eat in the morning because they don’t feel hungry. They often find that they don’t feel hungry for the first half of the day and don’t really eat anything until lunch. This is most likely because they had a large meal before going to bed the night before and they still have some undigested (and unfresh) food in their system. This feeling will prevent them from wanting to put more food in. To compound that issue, by not eating, their metabolism never gets that jump start and the leftovers they’re carrying around don’t get the full attention they need. So, by the time they finally break their fast, it’s lunchtime.

A very common phenomenon is the mid-afternoon slump. Around three or four o’clock, many people find their energy waning. The common American diet dictates that this is the time for the afternoon coffee , tea, soda or pastry. Big mistake. Understandable, though, because your body is telling you you need some serious calories by this time of the day. But that message is misinterpreted as a request for ‘energy’ and caffeine or sugar does quiet that craving, so it seems like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this routine puts us in a severe energy deficit. So, come dinnertime, we do our best to make up this deficit by having a nice, big satisfying meal. This is the same meal I spoke of before. The one we go to bed with our stomachs full of. Does any of that sound familiar? Like I said, it’s very common. And it’s also the reason we can’t make the changes in our bodes that we want to make.

So, consider this....

You should be eating a small meal every three hours.

I consider a healthy diet to look something like this:
Breakfast - 7am

Brunch - 10am

Lunch - 1pm

Dinner - 4pm

Supper - 7pm

Snack - 10pm

Keep in mind that when you do this, your meals will be much smaller than what you may currently consider a “Brunch” or a “Supper” But I am trying to avoid using the word ‘snack’ until the last meal of the day because i want to emphasize that there are six meals rather than three meals with snacks in-between. A small breakfast will jump start your day. You should find that you’re hungry again by midmorning, so enjoy a small brunch. By the time lunch rolls around, you’ll be hungry again, so eat, but keep it small. You might still be at work for dinner. It’s not just a bagel, it’s a full, balanced meal. That’s not to say you’re having a Thanksgiving feast, its just another of your small meals. Have your supper three hours later, when you’ll start to feel those hunger signals again. The last meal, the ‘snack,’ is optional. If you’re trying to lose fat, and you can honestly say that you feel satisfied, then just go to bed. But truthfully gauge your hunger. If you’re hungry, you will not be doing yourself any favors. If you’re in the process of adding muscle to your body, then you will most likely want to have that last snack. I recommend people have their last meal an hour before they lay down to go to bed.

Before you run out and start having full on, old fashioned “meals” six times per day, pay careful attention to the HOW (much) section of this article. This system requires you to have small meals. A rule of thumb to gauge the appropriateness of your meals is that if three hours has passed and you don’t feel hungry yet, then it was probably too big. If you feel hungry again before three hours, then it was probably too small.

HOW (much)

This is an easy one to answer, but not as easy to follow. It will take some math, then some research and quite a bit of practice. But after a few weeks, if you’re a quick learner, it can become fairly natural. For some people it will take a bit longer before they’re able to follow this without always checking labels and charts. But it is worth the effort. Knowing how to manipulate your diet is one of the most important things you can do for your life. There is a formula you can use to figure out approximately how many calories to eat per day. I encourage you to do the math and follow the formula carefully until it starts to become second nature for you. You will feel the difference if you do. Eating the right amount of food will ensure you have energy all day.

First you have to figure out your BMR or your Basal Metabolic Rate.

Here is the formula:

For men, take your (body weight in pounds x 6.21) and then add 66.

then add (12.7 x your height in inches) and then subtract (6.8 x your age in years.)

It’s different for women. Here is your formula:

655 + (4.36 x body weight in pounds) + (4.57 x height in inches) - 4.7 x age in years)

For example, I’m a man and I weigh 165 pounds and I’m 5’9” (69 inches) and 42 years old. So my formula looks like this:

165 pounds x 6.21 = 1024.65 + 66 = 1090.65

12.7 x 69 inches = 876.30

6.8 x 42 years = 285.60

So... 1090.65 + 876.30 - 285.60 = 1681.35

But that is just your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Basically that means the approximate number of calories your body needs for its day to day function in order to survive. If you are eating fewer calories than this, you will eventually find yourself in “starvation mode” and your metabolism will slow down, which will cause you to retain fat.

Now you have another step before you get to your real number. This is called the “Activity Multiplier” and it looks like this:

If you get little to no exercise “Sedentary” then you multiply your BMR X 1.2

if you exercise 1-3 days a week “Lightly Active” then multiply your BMR X 1.375

if you exercise 3-5 days a week “Moderately Active” = BMR X 1.55

if you exercise 6-7 days a week “Very active = BMR X 1.725

if you exercise daily and have a strenuous physical job “Extremely Active” = BMR X 1.9

This resulting number is approximately the amount of calories you need per day to maintain your current body weight. So if you take that resulting number and reduce it by 15-20% you get the reduced caloric intake you’d need for healthy fat loss. If you want to increase your weight (and I’ll assume that you want that weight added as muscle) then increase that number by about 10-15% and make sure you are doing a proper amount of weight training. You can’t just add muscle by eating more food.

The best bet for long term health is a well balanced diet based on food choices from the types of FATS, PROTEINS and CARBOHYDRATES I described in the “WHAT” section. You should be getting your calories from a roughly equal combination of FATS, PROTEINS and CARBOHYDRATES. You probably have heard arguments that you should be eating very low fat diets or very low carb diets to lose weight or very high protein diets to gain weight. And this is simply not true. These fad diets range in effectiveness from ‘good only for a short term’ to ‘downright unsafe’ and should not be bothered with. The plan that I’m giving you is something you can stick with your entire life (with minor tweaks depending on your specific needs.)

The basic guideline is to get 40% of your calories from CARBS, 30% from FATS and 30% from PROTEINS. This is approximate, of course, but it is very well balanced and using this as a basis of all of your decisions will serve all of your nutritional needs.

Sorry, (I’m doing my best to make this simple) but there’s a bit more math here:

a gram of CARBS has 4 calories

a gram of PROTEIN has 4 calories

a gram of FAT has 9 calories

So, when you know how many calories you need per meal, you take a percentage of that number and divide by four or nine to find out how many grams of CARBS/PROTEINS/FATS to eat.

For example:
Let’s say you need 500 calories per meal.

That would mean you wanted:

500 x 40% = 200 calories of CARBS. Divided by 4 is 50 grams of CARBS per meal.

500 x 30% = 150 calories of PROTEIN. Divided by 4 is 38 grams of PROTEIN per meal.

500 x 30% = 150 calories of FATS. Divided by 9 is 17 grams of FAT per meal.

Please don’t become obsessed with these numbers. Take some time to figure out your needs and write down the results. You only need to do the math once. Write it down. Then start to learn the CARB/PROTEIN/FAT values of food. Be diligent about keeping track of it for a while. A month or so is usually quite enough. Eventually you will notice it becomes intuitive. You will also notice you have tons of energy and you can easily lose fat or gain muscle by making minor adjustments to your diet and work outs.


Wow. I don’t know where to begin. I’m confident that if you read and follow what I’ve written here, you will have fantastic results. If you’re interested in knowing any of the “WHYs” of what I’ve said, I’d be happy to explain them. Please use the comments section of this blog or email me directly and I will answer any inquiry I get.

Life is good. Enjoy it.


rubes said...

Jason. great blog!! Could you, perhaps, list what you are eating for your six meals? Just to give an example. thanks man. ruben

Jason Alan Griffin said...

I hesitate to give examples and I intentionally didn't go there in the original post for fear of it coming across as specific advice. I want you to come up with your own. But since you asked, I will try to put it in a more general way. But please keep in mind this is me, not you, and that my diet changes all the time because I'm paying attention to my needs.

For example, I'm currently in a phase where I'm leaning up and working on my flexibility, so I'm eating more veggies and less protein these days. If you asked me this question last month, when I was in a weight training phase I would have given you a much different answer.

What I will do is go into how I approach making a meal. For lunch, dinner and supper, I start by considering what protein source I'm having, if any. If I'm having one, It could either be a piece of lean meat or could be eggs, or nuts, or seeds, a mix of vegetables, or beans or any combination of those. I've learned how big of a serving of protein is appropriate for me by doing all of my math first.
Then, I surround my protein with vegetables. I will usually opt for a low-fat source of protein and then add olive oil to my vegetables. I try to have at least two different kinds of vegetables of different colors. one is ALWAYS green, sometimes they both are. I love vegetables and eat a lots of them. I have sweet potatoes a lot. If I have squash or potatoes or some heavy root vegetables, I consider that as a carb.
As far as adding other carbs. When I do, I stick to grains and I don't add much. If I make rice, which is fairly common, I will always make brown rice and I'll always steam it. I also like Amaranth and whole wheat bread.Also, sometimes, I have yogurt or cheese, but now, in my 'lean and flexible phase,' I'm not really having much dairy at all, except eggs.
Since I'm in the mode of dropping fat, I tend to choose either a carb or a protein to have with my veggies and avoid having carbs and proteins together in a meal. My entire meal will typically just barely fit in a standard cereal bowl or on a standard salad plate. As I look at a plate of food to call a meal, it's about 1/4 protein and 3/4 veggies (or 1/2 veggies and 1/4 grains)
For breakfast I might make french toast and/or a whey protein powder mixed with fruit juice and for my evening snack, I often choose fresh fruit with nuts or with yogurt. Oatmeal is also common for me, with both.
In addition to the issue of color, I consider a mix of tastes to be important. I don't want a meal overly bland, nor overly salty, overly bitter, sweet, or any one taste. I attempt to include a balance of flavors and colors as much as possible.

So that is my template, I guess. I'd consider that my basic structure for putting together a meal. I want to repeat that this is not advice for you, it's an answer to your question, I think it's important to add: I allow myself to stray from the norm. I haven't found a lot of personal success, nor client success, by being strict and rigid. Because the key to it is maintaining it. I recommend setting your guidelines and then following them as best you can.

Thanks for the question, Ruben. I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Although I can really appreciate what you are trying to offer people in this incredibly important area of well-being, I would like to draw your attention to just one thing you mentioned that I think encompasses a great deal in your writing. It is the notion of "non-negotiable truths." Because this is an incredibly important area of well-being a good deal of study and practice should be backing assertions that people make. To affirm "non-negotiable truths" causes an eyebrow to raise with me. Things are not quite so simple and this has been at least part of the justification for most of the diets we see out there, including all the contradictory ones. Nutrition is more complex than that, while at the same time still being much more simple than what we are led to believe. The only specific issue that I'll bring up here, which wasn't adequately treated in your blog article is one of traditional quality farming. This brings up directly related issues of soil health, which is determined by soil micro-organisms, which are directly impacted by the type of farming practiced. To discuss nutrition without getting into at least some of the particulars of farming and ecology is to treat nutrition abstractly. That is a paradigm issue!

I'll leave you with my big 3 principles I've come up with for optimal nutrition. These are broad principles, which I'm addressing in my book and which each would require a chapter.

*Alex's BIG 3 Principles of sound nutrition for robust health.
1) Biochemical Individuality---clearly there is no one diet for all. This has been an abysmal failure since the 1970s. There is genetic variance in humanity and we need to honor that by realizing different people have different nutritional needs largely based on ancestry.
2) Traditional Organic Farming---traditional farming maintained healthy soil and an overall quality environment, thus producing quality foods free of toxins, hormones, anti-biotics, etc. We have to recognize the food chain and it's impacts, if we are going to be at the top of it.
3) Seasonal Eating---not only is there no one diet for all, there is also no one way to eat all year round. The cycles of nature provide all organisms with what they need to survive through the changes of the seasons as we are all dynamic homeostatic systems.

Yours in health,
Alex Reyes, CPT, MES, CHC

Jason Alan Griffin said...

Thanks so much for your response.
I totally agree with everything you're saying.
In fact, I had used the phrase "non-negotiable truths" in a tongue-in-cheek manner. My intention was to emphasize that I was only addressing the issue in its most simplistic manner. Upon reading your feedback, I realized it was coming across completely differently so I went back and reworded my original posting based on your input.
As far as the other items, I'm glad that you mentioned them so that my readers can benefit from this information. My neglect of these (and many other issues of nutrition) was a decision I made to keep my essay as simple as possible. Yes, the issue of nutrition is amazingly complex, but I felt that there are certain basic truths that stand out as being the foundation of knowledge. And that's what I was addressing here.