When I say the word "carbs" what comes to mind? Likely foods like breads, pasta, rice, cereal, potatoes, and pizza.
When I say "protein" you naturally think chicken, steak, fish, eggs, milk, and yogurt.
When I say "fat" you probably think of burgers, avocados, nuts, potato chips, cheese, and olive oil.
When I say "sugar" you think soda, cookies, cake, chocolate, and probably even fruit.
This is how we've been programmed to view food, largely due to fad diets and advertising campaigns that talk about food in this context. There's always something we're told we need more of or less of. Less carbs, more protein, low fat, high fat, low sugar, you name it. At some point in the past 50 years, we've been told by some fad diet that we should eat high amounts or low amounts of each of those 4 categories.
During the low-fat diet era of the 90's, food companies pushed low-fat milk, low-fat crackers, low-fat butter, low-fat Oreo's, etc. Almost everything had a low-fat version. Even McDonald's debuted the lower in fat McLean Burger!
Then came the Atkin's high-protein, low-carb diet craze which seems to have stood the test of time. To this day, the average person believes "carbs are the enemy."
Then came the Zone diet that preached a certain ratio of carbs to fat to protein. Then in the early 2000's came the South Beach Diet, which fueled the high-protein craze even more. Next was Weight Watcher's which is based on counting "Smart Points." What determines the value of Smart Points? You guessed it... the protein, fat, and sugar content of foods.
Every single mainstream diet focuses on one of those 4 categories: protein, carbs, fat, and sugar. And that's how we categorize foods to this day. I always get a good chuckle when I order a salad and I'm asked,
"Would you like a protein on that?"
What does that even mean? I think what you meant to say was,
"Would you like the dead flesh of an animal on that?"
Food is not comprised of just those 4 nutrients. There isn't just protein in a piece of steak, there isn't just fat in an avocado, there isn't just sugar in a banana, and there isn't just carbs in spaghetti. We've gotten to the point where, when we eat a piece of chicken, all we think about is the "lean protein" we're getting. When we eat almonds, all we think about is the "healthy fats" we're getting.
Then, depending on what diet camp we subscribe to at any given time, all we focus on is eating foods that will increase or decrease the amount of those 4 nutrient categories. High protein? Eat your meats. Low carb? Avoid the breads and grains. High fat? Put butter in your coffee. Low sugar? Go easy on the sweets and fruits.
But what about all the other nutrients in the foods we choose to eat? Do they play a significant role in our health? Do they have an impact on how that food is used in our bodies? They most certainly do.
Let's use two common foods as examples: chicken and apples.
Chicken is a go-to for those following a "high-protein diet", especially because most consider it to be much healthier than red meats (although poultry has been shown to play more of a role in obesity than other meats, see study). Let's look at 1 serving (140 g) of chicken. Yes, it has 38 grams of protein. It also has 5 grams of saturated fat, 123 mg of cholesterol, and 115 mg of sodium. Not to mention it comes with hormones, arsenic, skin, ligaments, fecal matter, and whatever else that animal was exposed to. We know that saturated fat and cholesterol cause disease and we know that hormones, carcinogens, and fecal matter from other creatures cause disease (some studies for reference here). Are you really going to ignore all that other stuff and eat chicken just for the "protein?"
Wait a second... I just caught myself doing exactly what everyone does! I'm talking about certain things found in chicken. Let's look at the chicken as a whole. Is chicken consumption associated with disease? Is chicken healthy?
Do people who eat (and even just handle!) poultry have a higher risk of developing certain cancers? Yes (Reference 1, Reference 2, Reference 3). Do people who eat more chicken have higher rates of obesity? Yes (Reference). Do people who eat chicken have higher rates of Type 2 diabetes? Yes (Reference). Is animal consumption, in general, associated with a shorter lifespan? Yes (Reference).
Now, let's look at a medium sized apple. Those on a low-carb diet will often restrict their intake of fruits (paleo, Atkins, etc.) such as apples because of the high sugar and carbohydrate content. Yes, an average apple has 25 grams of carbohydrates, 19 grams being from sugar. But it also has 195 mg of potassium, 4.5 grams of fiber, a significant amount of vitamin C, and countless other antioxidants. But, again, let's look at apples as a whole. Does apple consumption contribute to or protect against disease? It protects (Reference 1, Reference 2). Is more apple and other fruit consumption associated with weight gain? No (Reference) Is more fruit, in general, associated with a longer lifespan? Yes (Reference).
If you (the average person putting your best foot forward to lose weight and live long) eliminated the thought that you "need protein" or that you should "avoid carbs", would you ever eat a piece of chicken? Wouldn't you eat more of the foods that have shown to decrease your weight and prevent disease?
We seem to be blinded, almost brainwashed, by this overwhelming notion of the "need" for protein (or the need or avoidance of fat, carbs, and sugar). So much so, that we completely block out the bigger picture and we eat foods that clearly promote poor health just to get protein. Or we avoid some of the healthiest foods on the planet, like fruit, just to avoid sugar.
The single greatest step you can take for your health (right this second!), is to stop categorizing foods as protein, carbs, fat, and sugar and start looking at foods as a whole. Start eating foods because they are health promoting... not because they have 42 grams of protein in them!
Do you drink water for the hydrogen? No. You drink it because we know, as a whole, it promotes health!