You know the drill: Eat less sugar and you'll be less fat. Eat more protein and your muscles will be fuller and firmer. Eat more bean-curd salads and you'll probably beg someone to stop serving you bean-curd salads.
But here's the truth: The right kinds of healthy foods, in the right proportions, will certainly go a long way toward to fueling your body up, gaining more energy, and recovering from tough workouts.
"There's more going on below the surface to healthy eating than most people realize," says Nicholas Perricone, M.D., adjunct professor at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University and author of The Wrinkle Cure. "It all comes down to how your body responds to the foods you're taking in."
What the good doctor is talking about is inflammation. Not mere redness and swelling, but subclinical inflammation, which can't be seen by the naked eye. Inflammation exists throughout your body in various degrees, and is influenced by external factors such as the food you eat and the air you breathe. For example, researchers at the University of Buffalo have found that eating large quantities of sugar and fats—junk food, in other words—an increased concentration of free radicals in your bloodstream, which creates inflammation in the body.
Perricone, who has given several lectures about inflammation on PBS, is world-renowned for creating nutritional plans designed to help the body counteract these inflammatory responses. His clients have become stronger, leaner and healthier by following his advice.
Perricone has given Men's Fitness five ways to help you look younger, lose fat and feel better through avoiding inflammation.
1. LOOK 10 YEARS YOUNGER
Cut back on your sugar intake.
Most people don't realize the toll sugar takes on their appearance. "Sugar is responsible for nearly half of all skin aging, because it inhibits the effectiveness of collagen within your skin cells," says Perricone. Excess sugar in your system binds with collagen, causing a chemical change called glycosylation. Ideally, collagen molecules slide easily over each other, giving the skin a soft, elastic look. After being attacked by sugar, the collagen fibers become cross-linked and stick to each other, resulting in sagging and wrinkled skin. Glycosylation can also cause age spots and discolored marks on the skin by overworking melanocytes, the cells that provide pigment.
Avoiding sweets is a must, but identifying hidden forms of sugar is even more important. "Try to stay away from foods that are higher on the glycemic index, such as corn, bananas, potatoes and peas," says Perricone. Instead, eat more foods that are low on the glycemic index, such as kiwi, blueberries, peaches, leafy greens, broccoli and spinach. "These types of fruits and vegetables deliver sugar into your system at a slower rate, since they're also packed with fiber. They're also rich in antioxidants that help eliminate free radicals and reduce inflammation in the skin. Left unchecked, [free radicals] can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, a weakened immune system and other health issues."
Perricone green-lights the regular use of topical anti-inflammatories such as alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C ester to increase elasticity in the skin. Antioxidant creams can be found at health-food stores such as Whole Foods. If creams aren't your thing, try taking 100 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid in tablet form (available in most health-food stores) twice daily. "This anti-inflammatory antioxidant also inhibits the attachment of sugar to protein, minimizing the amount of damage sugar can do to your skin," says Perricone.
2. SHED YOUR STRESS
Switch from coffee to tea
All those high-priced lattes not only subtract cash from your wallet, but all that milk, cream and sugar can deposit a Venti-sized amount of calories around your midsection. Moreover, a single cup of coffee raises cortisol levels for 12 to 14 hours. Cortisol, a hormone pumped out by the body at times of stress, is necessary for survival, but when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, you're asking for all sorts of trouble beyond fat deposition.
"Too much cortisol in the system is toxic to brain cells, thins your skin, decalcifies your bones, and suppresses your immune system," explains Perricone. Cortisol also kicks up insulin levels by raising your blood sugar, encouraging the storage of excess calories as fat. "Making the switch has been proven to show an average weight loss of up to eight pounds in just six weeks," says Perricone—and that's if no other change, such as beginning a workout program, is implemented during the same period.
Actually, caffeine is not the culprit, but rather the organic acids found in coffee that cause cortisol levels to skyrocket. Switching to tea, whether caffeinated or decaffeinated, can curtail cortisol release and insulin spike while keeping you healthy minus the withdrawal symptoms.
3. GET LEAN FASTER
Limit your intake of processed carbs.
Eliminating carbs may be a trendy way to lose weight, but it also severely limits the amount of insulin your body releases, which will stunt muscle growth. "In normal proportions, insulin is just as important for triggering the metabolic functions that encourage muscle growth as testosterone is," says Perricone.
Hence, you don't need to expel carbs from your dietary curriculum—they're crucial, in fact. Simply avoid the high-glycemic types that promote insulin secretion.
Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables with glycemic ratings below 50. Cucumbers, plums, pears and peppers are good choices. (For a comprehensive list, go to www.glycemicindex.com.) "These types of foods can give your body enough of an insulin response to have an anabolic effect on the muscles without storing excess body fat," says Perricone.
4. MAINTAIN ENERGY ALL DAY, EVERY DAY
Eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of three big ones.
Throwing down a large, high-calorie meal raises your glucose levels drastically, causing an increase of free radicals in the bloodstream that can last up to three or four hours. "For your body, this means an inflammatory burst that can affect your serum levels and increase your risk of developing heart disease, among other health problems," says Perricone.
Breaking up those three meals into five throughout the day keeps your blood-sugar levels stable and produces an even flow of energy. But allowing yourself to snack between sit-downs doesn't mean you can ignore the rules of nutritional balance. "Most guys throw out any semblance of smart eating when they eat between their main meals," says Perricone. "Every snack should always include three things: a good source of lean protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates in the form of fruits or vegetables, and an essential fatty acid like olive oil or fresh, unsalted nuts."
Eat what you would usually reach for, and figure out whether it's composed primarily of a protein, carbs or fat. Then balance it with the other two macronutrients, even if it's just a bite of each. For instance, if you like munching on slices of smoked turkey, add a few celery sticks and a handful of olives. If pears and apples are your thing, combine them with a few grilled shrimp and some almonds.
5. BEAT THE BLUES
Avoiding harmful oils.
Certain types of artificial fatty acids, notably partially hydrogenated oils, have to first be altered by your body by an essential enzyme called delta-6 desaturates. Never mind the arcane tech stuff, here's what you need to know: It's this very process that triggers inflammation throughout your body. But avoiding oils altogether can have a negative impact on the matter between your ears. "Having little to no fat in the diet has been shown to cause clinical depression," says Perricone. "The brain has to have enough fatty acids in order to function properly."
If you're more concerned with your waistline than your cranium, you can put your mind—and belly—at ease. "As odd as it may sound, you can actually lose body fat by eating the right kinds of fat," says Perricone. "Without enough essential fatty acids in your system, your body tends to retain the very body fat you're hoping to lose."
Perricone recommends always using olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, instead of vegetable oil, which is a polyunsaturated fat that can make your body more susceptible to free-radical damage. "Olive oil also contains oleic acid—an omega-9 fatty acid—that makes it easier for your body to utilize fatty acids on a cellular level instead of converting them first."