A Wealth of Health | Maintaining nutrition through meal plans and prep | Culture

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In the last column, we discussed the basics of nutrifying the body by obtaining proper nourishment in the form of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It’s great to do so for a few days, maybe a week — but how do we maintain those habits? 

Finding a meal plan that works for you, proper meal preparation and understanding your body are the best ways to do it. 

Intermittent fasting or grazing?

Two common — and polar opposite — meal plans that have gained recent popularity are intermittent fasting and grazing. Each has contradicting evidence to back up its efficacy. 

JMU dietetics professor Jeremy Akers said it’s important to call these “meal plans” and not diets because “diet” has become a “four-letter dirty word” in today’s society and should be used as a noun and not a verb. Meal planning, on the other hand, is something that you do and, Akers said, everyone needs to have a meal plan that works for their specific needs. 

Intermittent fasting works by consuming food for six to eight hours a day, then eating nothing for the remaining 16 to 18 hours — this usually means skipping breakfast. There are also offshoots of this practice that include eating at normal hours for five or six days a week, then eating little to no food in a prolonged fast that lasts one or two days.

For maximum effectiveness of the intermittent fasting method, JMU exercise physiology professor Chris Womack recommends eating satiating macronutrients so that hunger isn’t as prevalent throughout the day. A diet that’s high in protein fills someone up more so than other macronutrients like refined carbohydrates. 

By incorporating a large quantity of protein into his diet, Womack said he tries to do one 24-hour fast every week. If the cards are played correctly, the calories and fat reserves that build from one meal are cut out every day, but Womack said it doesn’t buy you a free pass to eat whatever you want for eight hours. 

“A lot of people — based on their current diet and their predispositions and their relationship with food and their food choices that they’ve historically had throughout their life — they can do a lot of damage in that eight hours,” Womack said. “I think that if you start making dietary changes that allow you to intermittent or prolong fast easily, then that’s a game changer.”

Nurse practitioner and functionally trained nutritionist Cynthia Thurlow said in a 2019 TEDx Talk that intermittent fasting is the correct way to consume food. She said this is because eating constantly throughout the day — as many people eat three meals and snacks in between — can overtax the pancreas and our digestive system, which prevents our body from absorbing the nutrients in our food. 

Thurlow also said people who tap into fat stores as their primary energy source as opposed to glucose, the fuel source used when running on carbohydrates that keeps insulin levels high, are clearer cognitively and have more sustained energy. To effectively fast, Thurlow emphasized the importance of eating whole foods and making carbohydrate substitutions like eating sweet potatoes and quinoa over bread and pasta. 

Grazing, on the other hand, is a meal plan that involves eating six to eight small meals throughout the day. Akers utilizes this method and said most of his meals and snacks are 200-300 calories, and his 450-calorie breakfast is his biggest meal of the day. 

Akers said he grazes to keep his gastrointestinal (GI) tract moving throughout the day, which he said is meant to be fed —  if we don’t eat for long periods of time, he said, the bacteria in the GI tract die. Bacteria in our gut can prevent inflammation and reverse fat mass, according to a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences of the United States of America. 

Grazing also makes it easier to be nourished, Akers said. Since intermittent fasting involves not eating for a long period of the day, he said it’s very difficult to consume all the essential nutrients needed in a six-hour window. Moreover, he said grazing helps keep his insulin — the anabolic hormone — in check.

“One of the things when you look at your hormones is that if you’re not eating, you’d be dipping — your insulin would be dipping,” Akers said. “Let’s say you eat twice a day, and all of a sudden you eat a big meal. It spikes up really high, then it comes down again … You’ll have that big fluctuation [of insulin]. I like more of that even-keel, and that’s what works for me.”

However, Akers said he’s OK with intermittent fasting if you’re nourished and have at least an eight-hour feeding window. 

With both meal plans having pros and cons, intermittent fasting or grazing can be practiced by college students depending on the schedules of different individuals. If you have a hectic morning schedule, then being able to graze between classes for bursts of energy might be appropriate. But if you have one or no morning classes and can sleep in longer, intermittent fasting might be the way to go, as it cuts calories and fat reserves, and since you’re cutting out a meal, it can help with weight loss — if that’s a goal. 

Metabolism: Everyone’s different

One of the biggest determining factors for a meal plan should be metabolism — or how efficient our bodies are at taking what we’ve eaten, processing it and getting rid of any excess — Akers said. 

In an extremely rare case, slow metabolism can be the cause of life or death —  the last column presented a caffeine study Womack took part in that said a specific gene is responsible for how fast our metabolism can break down caffeine in the liver. The gene determines whether excessive caffeine consumption causes a performance-enhancing effect or increases risk for heart disease. But in an everyday sense, it’s imperative to focus on how metabolism speed changes as we age and what we can control, like proper nourishment and getting adequate physical activity, Akers said. 

“It’s just how everyone’s geared differently,” Akers said about metabolism. “It’s just like, somebody’s got blue eyes, brown eyes, somebody’s got curly hair, somebody’s got straight hair — it’s the same thing with our [metabolism speed].” 

While metabolism speed is uncontrollable, knowing how to adapt to a slower metabolism as we age is certainly controllable. Akers said metabolism slows down with age because of a combination of many factors, but it mainly revolves around hormonal changes. 

As men get older, they don’t produce as much testosterone, which means many men subsequently lose muscle mass, Akers said. That muscle gets replaced with fat in many cases, and fat isn’t as metabolically active, resulting in a slower metabolism. 

The reverse happens in women — estrogen production decreases and testosterone production increases through menopause, Akers said, and the hormonal imbalance causes females to be less metabolically active. 

Another hormone that impacts both men and women, cortisol, contributes to a slower metabolism as we age because, as a stress hormone, it stores fat. Akers said the older we get, the more stressed we get with life responsibilities regarding kids and finances, which can impact our metabolic activity. Additionally, Akers said he thinks increased financial security as we get older exposes our slower metabolism because with increased wealth comes more food options.

To cope with a slower metabolism as people age, Akers put great emphasis on both eating food that nourishes us and eating in moderation. For example, he said, an easy adjustment to knock off 100 calories would be to go from consuming five ounces of cheese a day to three. 

Akers said it’s also important to stay active to combat a slower metabolism. At bare minimum, he said, if you can do something for five minutes every 15 minutes — like walking your dog, doing chair exercises or playing with your kids — it’ll help manage any bodily changes. 

Meal prepping and weight management: Do what works for you

Preparing food ahead of time in predetermined portions is an effective way to eat in moderation and manage weight gain both as a college student and an adult. Akers and Andy Allen (’20) — a graduate from JMU with a Master of Science from the Department of Kinesiology, fitness coach and personal trainer at Future — said they both do meal prep. The caveat they both harped on: Meal prepping needs to be done in a sustainable way so that it can allow for weight management in an individualized manner. 

Allen said he frequently meal preps chicken, rice and vegetables. In order to keep his taste buds guessing and to prevent getting too rigid, he said he’ll often season one serving of chicken with taco seasoning and another with teriyaki — with one chicken breast he can make five different servings of chicken. A self-proclaimed “super lazy” cook, Allen also said meal prepping more conveniently fits his lifestyle because he can just grab the food from the fridge and not have to cook every night. 

Akers said he and his wife prep meals every Sunday for the remainder of the week for themselves and their kids. In order for meal prepping to be sustainable and not become routine, Akers said it’s important to find ways to still eat what you enjoy and to have fun with it — even if that means having fried chicken twice a week if you still get nourished in other ways. 

“If I tell you that you have to eat four cups of spinach but you hate spinach, it’s not going to work,” Akers said. “You’re going to want something that’s sustainable.”

Building up to eating more vegetables, or adequate amounts of other nourishers, starts with short-term goals, Akers said. He said setting goals in meal planning or losing weight is an effective tool for staying motivated — the psychological aspect of accomplishing a goal of simply putting spinach on a sandwich before having it in larger amounts helps develop sustainable habits. 

“None of us want to fail, so if we have this 50-pound [weight loss] goal, and in six months you don’t attain it, now all of a sudden you’re a failure,” Akers said. “If you have these small goals every week that, hopefully, you can meet that goal, now all of a sudden that’s a win … Now, you’re a ‘winner,’ you’re ‘successful.’”

Within these short-term goals, Akers said it’s important to note weight loss doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t take one week to put on the weight — it took months, years or maybe decades — so it’s going to take discipline and work to lose the weight. Through meal prepping and properly managing overall health in symbiosis with food moderation and nourishment, the weight will drop more easily, he said. 

For some people, however, being a little overweight is just who they are, Akers said. He said the goal for every person should be to maintain a healthy weight and to have self-efficacy and confidence in your own skin if you know you’re doing everything in your power to be the best “you.” 

“Just because a person is overweight doesn’t mean they’re not participating in physical activity, doesn’t mean that they’re not eating healthy, that they’re not getting nourished, they have no chronic disease [and] that they’re psychologically OK with their weight,” Akers said.

Above all, Akers said it’s important for those trying hard to manage or lose weight to face head-on how they got to a position in the first place to need to slim down. Even though genetics play a major role, taking care of yourself is the ultimate controllable, he said. 

“There’s reasons why fad-diet books are going to be on The New York Times Best Seller list,”  Akers said. “Everyone wants something that works for them and that [won’t] be their fault. I think that all of us need to take a little ownership of our weight — it’s something that you have done.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health” column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.

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