The 3 Culprits Of An Unhealthy Diet
Which mistakes truly sabotage a healthy diet? Start researching, and you’re likely to find conflicting health studies, research, and opinions. We asked Ian Daniel—whose credentials range from nutrition coach with Hybrid Performance Method and registered nurse to elite powerlifter and two-time CrossFit Games competitor—to cut through the misinformation and break down what he knows to be the real contributors to an unhealthy diet.
1. TOO MANY CALORIES
"So many people simply eat too many calories,” says Ian, who’s quick to note calories, which are derived from protein, carbohydrate, and fat, are a metric, not a nutrient. “They allow us to talk—in a quantitative amount—about how much food we’re getting. If your diet is high in calories, and you’re not burning those calories, it results in weight gain,” he says. And that weight gain often leads to poor health markers. “It means blood pressure increases, the heart works harder, and the risk of heart failure and diabetes goes up.”
Calorie control is essential to both health & weight loss and maintenance. And diet—not exercise—has the greatest impact. “Activity level is a big factor in body composition and overall health,” says Ian, “but it’s exponentially harder to out-train a bad diet than it is to eat less calories.” A majority of people don’t hold physically demanding jobs, so activity level can be
challenging to maintain, making diet and calorie control even more important, says Ian. “Even if a person’s lifestyle isn’t ideal, excellent diet and calorie control can compensate and result in overall good health markers,” he notes.
2. NOT GETTING ENOUGH PROTEIN
Ian has his clients track what they’re eating— the amount of calories, protein, carbs, and fat they take in on a daily basis. “Most people think they’re eating plenty of protein,” he says, “but they’re thinking about the steak they had the other night. You need enough protein every day for optimal health.” He adds that on a daily basis, the average person needs around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, meaning a 180-pound human needs around 180 grams of protein in one day. “90 percent of the time my clients realize they’re getting too many calories and about half the protein they need for a healthy diet,” he says.
Proteins—made from building blocks called amino acids—are essential nutrients that do most of the work in cells; they’re required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissue and organs. Our bodies don’t store amino acids, so we create them either from scratch or by modifying others. Nine of those amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—must come from food. If your body gets these 9 essential amino acids, it can twist and turn them to make the others. If it doesn’t get them, it doesn’t make them, and this can result in all sorts of health issues. “For example,” says Ian, “if someone doesn’t have enough tryptophan, it can predispose you to anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
The body simply can't function properly, build muscle, and repair itself without adequate protein. And if you’re active and hit the gym often, low protein intake makes it nearly impossible to build muscle mass to adapt to your training. “That 80 grams of protein you’re eating will only sustain you so long,” says Ian, “and you’ll start spinning your wheels in the gym.” Ian notes that inadequate protein also leads to increased appetite. “You’re much hungrier, much more often,” he says, “which increases the likeliness of turning to high carb, high calorie, high reward food items.”
Ian believes red meat is essential to a high-quality diet, particularly since it’s a complete protein, meaning it has all 22 amino acids. Of those 22, it has particularly high concentration of the 9 essential amino acids. “If you’re getting 50 grams of red meat, you’re getting a ton of essential amino acids,” he says—more than any plant source can offer.
He also points out that protein claims on some food labels can be misleading. “You might see a nutritional label that says 20 grams of protein and think, yeah, that’s the same amount as a burger or 4 ounces of steak! But if it’s not red meat, it’s not the same protein. If someone eats 20 grams of protein from red meat, he can absorb almost all of the protein ingested; but if it’s 20 grams of protein from beans, for example, maybe 13 of those grams are absorbed, and there aren’t as many essential amino acids. It's simply a lower-quality protein."
But not all red meats are created equally, and unfortunately, some health and nutrition professionals villainize red meat by taking an over-generalized view of the industry. “A lot of health studies group meat into one big category, and that’s just inaccurate,” Ian says. “When studies say meat causes negative health outcomes, what they should specify is that poor quality
meat, the kind you often find at fast food restaurants, results in negative health outcomes.” Unfortunately, most studies don’t make the distinction. “When you have an animal that’s treated ethically, eating what it’s supposed to eat during the course of its life, and it’s not given steroids,
hormones, or antibiotics, well, that animal tends to produce good, healthy meat,” Ian says. “It’s not red meat that’s bad for you. When it’s raised and processed poorly—that’s when it’s bad for you.”
That's why previously, Ian turned to wild game for a low fat, high protein source. The only problem? “It tastes like the bottom of a shoe,” he laughs. So when Ian tried incredibly lean Certified Piedmontese beef, he was skeptical— but not for long. “I was just blown away by the tenderness and taste,” he says. Now, Certified Piedmontese beef plays a huge role in the nutrition plans of both Ian and his clients. “A lot of my clients are on lower calorie diets, so they have trouble fitting red meat in because of the fat content,” he says, “but with Certified Piedmontese beef, they can get close to 30 grams of protein from a 4-ounce portion—and there’s less than 45 calories coming from fat. They get all of the benefits of red meat and none of the problems.”
3. VITAMIN & MINERAL DEFICIENCY
It’s not just about calorie control and protein content, however. Vitamins and minerals—also known as micronutrients—are crucial for optimal body function. Ian notes that a human’s micronutrient needs can be covered with animal protein sources, dairy, and fruits and vegetables, but because processed foods, rather than whole foods, play such a large role in many
people’s diets, they simply aren’t getting the micronutrients they need to feel their best. Ian recommends eating as many whole foods as possible—foods in their natural state like plants and
animals—to boost micronutrient intake.
“A high-quality red meat protein can play a huge role in getting your micronutrients,” says Ian. Lean red meats are also an exceptional source of micronutrients like vitamin B12 (helps make DNA and red blood cells), niacin (helps cell-signaling and DNA repair), vitamin B6 (important for metabolism and the creation of red blood cells and neurotransmitters), iron (helps transport oxygen throughout the body, particularly important for women with a menstrual cycle), zinc (supports the immune system), and phosphorus (helps filter waste and repair cells and tissues)—to name a few. Ian also notes that some of these nutrients (like iron) are more easily absorbed by humans when they come from animal sources.
“Micronutrients come in to make sure you’re not having brain fog during work, that you’re not having digestive issues, and that you’re not cramping when you go to the gym,” says Ian. “Basically, those little things that increase your quality of life? They happen when you get your micronutrients.”