If we believe everything we read in the mainstream media, one day something is bad for you, the next it's a life-saver. Here are four foodstuffs that often get a bad rap. But should you be avoiding them completely?
Commonly avoided due to its relatively high fat content compared to other meats (especially saturated fat), red meat is a food group that you don’t want to ignore. A small amount of saturated fat in the diet is necessary for regulating hormones such as testosterone, as fat acts as the building blocks for not only hormones, but all cell membranes too.
Red meats are also loaded with protein and contain vital micronutrients such as iron and zinc which are essential for oxygen transportation and immune system support respectively. If you want to keep an eye on saturated fat, aim for lean cuts of red meat such as fillet, sirloin, rump and 5%-fat ground beef.
Dairy products are absolutely loaded with essential nutrients for both health and exercise performance. However, like red meat, dairy products such as milk and cheese are commonly avoided due to the fear of saturated fat. But in reality they are so nutrient-dense that it makes sense to include them in your diet in moderation. Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D, required for healthy bones, and support muscle function too. Potassium, magnesium, vitamin A and a host of B vitamins (crucial for energy metabolism) also come from dairy sources and they are a great source of protein.
Dairy foods such as yoghurt that contain bio-active live cultures provide probiotics that enhance the good bacteria in the gut, essential for digestive processes and nutrient absorption. As with red meat, if you’re concerned about saturated fat, there are lower fat options such as semi-skimmed milk or reduced-fat cheese that still have all the nutritional benefits.
Ingestion of processed meat on a regular basis for long periods has been associated with an increased risk of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Excess sugar, salt and fat such as artificial trans-fat (the worst type of fat) are often added to processed meat in order to improve to the taste or texture and increase shelf life.
Carcinogenic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) can form during meat processing due to the high cooking temperatures and smoking of certain meats. Because of these potential harmful compounds and all the additives (making them very calorie dense), it’s recommended by most health organisations that intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, smoked meat, etc. should be limited. Eating them occasionally (everything in moderation) will provide no real health risk but a consistently high intake certainly could. The majority of your nutritional intake should be from fresh whole foods, with processed foods making up a small portion.
Sucrose is the most common form of refined sugar and known by most people as table sugar. Sucrose is a ‘disaccharide’ carbohydrate (two sugar molecules combined) made up of glucose and fructose, and rapidly increases blood glucose concentration when digested and causes large releases of insulin from within the pancreas.
Because insulin inhibits the breakdown of fat (lipolysis) and its conversion into a usable source of energy (oxidation) and actually encourages fat storage (lipogenesis), many people follow low-carb/low-sugar diets.
However, consuming sugar/carbs at the right time can be very beneficial for exercise performance. Carbs/sugar are best consumed before and after exercise, when demand for energy is at its highest. The increased glucose in the blood from consuming sugar before exercise will be used to generate energy to fuel the training session, especially if the session is of an intense nature.
After exercise, consuming carbs/sugar will result in blood glucose being shuttled to muscle cells to replenish muscle glycogen and aid with the recovery process. After exertion, muscle cells are highly receptive to glucose and other nutrients in the blood and will increase their uptake to restore depleted stocks.
However, when energy demand is low (eg, sitting at your desk), muscle cells are not so receptive, so the burst of insulin from your pancreas is more likely to move blood glucose to fat cells instead. Refined sugar (and carbs in general) doesn’t have to be completely avoided, but the timing can be optimised for it to be useful and not detrimental to health, body composition and performance.