In previous posts, we have introduced the macro and micronutrients, talked about energy balance, and learned about how to read food labels. In this post, we are going to put it all together and come up with some guidelines to help you start figuring out how YOU should eat.
In this exercise, we are going to make a couple of assumptions.
1. We are talking about lifestyle changes, not crash dieting.
You are in this for the long haul; this is not ‘quick fix' diet and these recommendations are meant to create a way of eating that lasts.
2. We are not addressing diseases or disease management through nutrition. Therefore, these recommendations are for the healthy population.
From years of working with clients, we have identified 4 main characteristics that need to be considered when planning how you are going to eat. These are not listed in any particular order; for most people and goals they are all necessary and none is sufficient.
The food we eat needs to be satisfying. The flavor, the scent, the texture, the quantity. Even the sight of it is important. Virtually all diets that eliminate every satisfying food fail because every meal becomes a test of willpower. There are only so many times that we can be tested before we ‘fail.'
I put fail in quotations because wanting to enjoy the food that we eat is not a failure. Enjoying the food that we eat is not a failure. you can and should eat foods that you enjoy.
We do not like the term ‘cheat,' whether it is a meal or a day. It puts us in the wrong frame of mind (specifically that we are doing something that we are not supposed to do). This often causes bad feelings, questions of willpower, and backslides.
Therefore, we use the term ‘indulgence.' This term is more empowering, recognizes that enjoying something is OK, limits the duration to our defined indulgence window more readily, and leaves us feeling better about the decision so we can pick up where we left off.
Learn how to indulge yourself responsibly. That indulgence does need to be put into the context of our goals, habits, etc.
Proper Energy Balance
Besides being satisfying, an eating plan needs to help move us towards our goals. For weight loss goals we need to be at a caloric deficit, for weight gain goals we need to be at a caloric surplus, and for maintenance, we need to eat in energy balance.
It is important for us to be aware of how our bodies are responding to our food plan if we want to reach our goals. This does not mean that we necessarily have to count calories or track every nutrient, but it does mean that we have to pay attention to our eating habits, how we feel, how the scale and body composition are responding, and how we are performing.
Some people weigh themselves every day and look for trends. Others weigh in once a week or less frequently. There are daily fluctuations in weight (usually 1% or so) so taking an average of daily weigh-ins for a week gives a better idea of how we are responding than focusing on changes every day.
A single week is often not enough time to see a difference if the daily fluctuations in weight have moved counter to that progress. However, in two weeks to a month, the daily fluctuations should be smaller than the progress when the goal is weight loss. When the goal is weight gain, it may take even longer to see the progress on the scale, depending on how developed we already are.
In the absence of the movement on the scale and a reliable body composition, the fit of clothes can indicate progress. Though less quantifiable, clothes fitting better (or dropping sizes) is a reassuring and reaffirming observation.
In order to not just survive, but to thrive, we need a diet that supplies us with all the nutrients that we require. This includes not just the right amount of energy, but also the right amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, phytonutrients, etc. Fortunately, this is something that we can accomplish with a diverse and well-rounded diet, without the need for supplements. A colorful variety of vegetables and occasional organ meats (for the omnivores) go a long way to meeting our vitamin and mineral needs. As a general guideline, we like to have at least half of our plate at each meal be covered in vegetables.
While having the proper energy balance for our goals is essential, we can go a little bit deeper and plan the macronutrient ratios, as well. For most people, the most important macronutrients to pay attention to are protein and carbohydrates.
As mentioned in the article on it, protein is necessary to build muscle, make enzymes, make up the structure of organs and bones, etc. With the exception of building muscle, these functions do not require a ton of protein and that is why the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is only 46 grams and 56 grams for men and women, respectively. Building, and retaining muscle during weight loss, requires more protein. Protein also has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF), which means that it raises our metabolism more than carbohydrates and fat.
Carbohydrates are also important to pay attention to for a few reasons. The first is that they have the second highest TEF. Second, carbohydrate is protein sparing. Essentially, eating carbohydrate allows the body to shift away from using protein for energy and this can help preserve muscle. Finally, carbohydrate is an excellent source of energy. We store it in our muscles and liver as glycogen, which we can then use to power our muscles, feed our brain, and to keep the necessary blood sugar levels. Generally speaking, the more active, and the more intensely active, we are, the more carbohydrate we need to fuel that activity.
Fats are important for all the reasons presented in the article on that topic. However, fat as a macronutrient does not generally confer any ergogenic benefit as long as adequate amounts in total and of the essential fatty acids are consumed.
Greater than the sum of its parts
So, how do we put this all together? Let's go step by step.
To make a diet sustainable you should identify those foods that you cannot live without. Make a list. Make another list of the foods that you enjoy, but do not really want that often. And make a list of the things you like but could give up without much worry.
Look through the list and think about how much of each food you need and how often you really need to have it to be happy. Then look at possible substitutions that might make for healthier choices and leave you satisfied.
Obvious types of foods or ingredients that should be eliminated or reduced as much as possible are things with added sugars. These added sugars are devoid of other nutrients and provide nothing but calories (and taste).
Keep the foods that you really, really need but reduce the amounts and/or frequency of the ones that might be detrimental to your goals.
Once you have those foods you can try to figure out how they will fit into your daily energy requirements. The most important part of reaching your weight goals is eating at the proper energy balance. With this in mind, there are not good or bad foods; there are only foods that make it easier or harder to eat the right amounts of food while also assuring that you get enough vitamins and minerals.
Tracking calories and activity level can be beneficial, but it important that you do not get bogged down in specific numbers and making them match. Look for trends. If consuming 1700 calories and burning 1500 according to your tracking results in weight loss, then the numbers are wrong, but you are doing it right (assuming that weight loss is your goal).
Vegetables are very nutritious foods and (the non-starchy variety) are low in calories. Eating a lot of colorful non-starchy vegetables is a great way to fill your stomach, meet your micronutrient needs, and reach your goals. They also add to the visual presentation of the meal.
Finally, determine how you can split up your macros into your daily calories. Remember to get enough protein to build or maintain muscle, depending on your goals. Eat enough carbohydrates to fuel your daily activity and your workouts. Eat enough fat to maintain your health, hormones, and to absorb your vitamins.
As a very general recommendation, we like a 30:40:30 ratio of protein:carbohydrate:fat. However, these number will vary depending on you as an individual, your goals, your starting weight and body composition, your performance goals, etc.
Visually, this looks like about a quarter of your plate being a lean protein, half being non-starchy vegetables, and the final quarter being a starch.
These guidelines are just that: ideas to help you get started and find what works for you.
We hope that you found this series on Nutrition Basics to be enjoyable and educational. If you have questions, comments, or would like more assistance on your fitness journey email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.