Nutrition can be overwhelming. We believe everything we hear. Since everything we have tried up until now hasn’t worked we are desperate to find the missing link. So when we are ready we begin obsessively talking to people or pinterest-ing ideas or watching Dr. Oz (he knows everything), inevitably we end up overwhelmed and confused. Generally, people gravitate toward some extreme measure because for whatever reason we believe that the more extreme or difficult a diet is the better it will work. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. In fact, when a diet is marketed as cutting edge or claims it holds a key that has just been discovered in the form of a pill made from some root that they found growing in the moss on the underside of a tree located in the most remote part of Istanbul…IT’S TOTAL BULLSHIT.
We already have a diet. We eat food that makes up our diet. We are simply trying to make our current diet better. In order to do that we need to establish good habits. Habits are a safety net and will make this whole process much easier.
So here is my approach. I don’t want to induce panic or have people get overwhelmed. That’s just a set up for failure. So, lets break this down into manageable steps. We can’t begin at the end and we obviously can’t tackle everything all at once.
Here are my proposed phases for optimizing your current diet. Tackle only one step within each phase at a time. How rapidly you move through these will be determined by your own comfort level. I recommend ensuring that you don’t move onto another phase until you are 100% comfortable in your current phase.
Phase 1- The Discovery Phase
In this phase we are starting to explore. This of it as fun (I know, but humor me). This is your new project and there is no deadline (deadlines makes us panic by introducing urgency and makes us feel like we either pass or fail), so – no deadlines. This is a process, we need to be patient with ourselves here.
- Start to introduce new foods (never start by taking “bad” foods out, that’s scary). Buy some new vegetables or fruits and start introducing them into your diet.
- Start to bring awareness to your eating. Do certain foods make you crave more? Do some make you hungrier? Fuller? More tired?
- Pay attention to your energy level. A good way to do this would be journaling. Are there certain times of the day when you are hungrier than others?
- Bring awareness to your eating habits. Do you inhale your food (I do). Many of us fall into a giant trap here. We in hale our meal in 5-10 minutes and think we are still hungry so we eat a bit more. We aren’t still hungry. We are rushing. It takes our food 20 minutes to reach our stomachs. We need to slow down, taste the food. Some ways to do that are to drink while we eat (many of us don’t) have a conversation with someone, put the fork down in between bites. Sounds simple enough and we can avoid ingesting a ton of extra food that we don’t really need.
Phase 2- Hanger Management (not a spelling error)
I love food. I hate being hungry, most of us do. In order to be successful when optimizing our diet we need to prevent ourselves from being hungry. At this point we have introduced some good habits, we have tried some new foods, the kale may have been a bit sketchy but, we survived. Now lets move onto managing our hunger. We will have a lot more success if we aren’t starving and dying for our next meal.
- Satiety, learn it, love it, live it. Use a mental satiety scale. Is what you are about to eat going to fill you up? Let me give you an image; lets say a snickers bar is about 240 calories as is a plate filled with chicken, sweet potato and brussels sprouts (don’t judge me, I love them). Just think of the portion sizes of each of those options. Which do you believe will leave you feeling fuller longer? I will always pick the option of more food. Here would be a good time to explain that no food is off limits BUT some foods, the really yummy ones, have no satiety factor. Lets think of calories like money in your account. If we are allotted a certain amount of calories per day and we decide we want a large ice cream cone we will be making a large withdrawl from our bank which doesn’t leave use a whole lot to play with for the rest of the day. Foods that have high satiety are generally not as yummy as a snickers bar but we can experiment with different food combinations, cooking methods, fresh herbs etc. Eating optimally does not have to suck.
- Examples of foods with low satiety are oils, nut butters, candy, any dessert really
- Examples of food with high satiety are vegetables, chicken, beef, oats, potato, rice
- If you haven’t already done so introduce exercise into your world. Notice how hungry you may be following a workout (this will be fine tuned as we move through these phases). Your workouts contribute to your overall daily energy expenditure (calorie use). I DON’T ever recommend people “eat back” their calories because that is a huge pitfall. In general, we overestimate our calorie burn and underestimate the total calories of the food we are eating and before we know it we are in a calorie surplus. Now would be a good idea to discuss some terms that are crucial guidelines in this process.
- Calorie is not a dirty word (neither is carb by the way) it is a measure of energy, simple. For sake of this step lets think of calories as money. Here is where you determine you caloric/energy needs for the day:
- Energy deficit- using what we have stored up in the bank. In order to loose fat we need to be in a caloric/ energy deficit, take in less than we use.
- Energy surplus- adding to the bank. In a surplus we are taking in more than we are using.
I can spend forever on this topic but, for the sake of this phase we simply need to understand that everything we ingest has a value. We can spend wisely or foolishly. If we are spending wisely we are eating with satiety in mind.
- Protein- Now we are getting to the meat and potatoes (intentional pun) of meal structure. Protein is the satiety king. It will not only keep us fullest the longest but it serves us the best, it is the most useful to our bodies. Protein will be the main building block for all of our meals throughout the day. This is a difficult step to master and one that may take a little time. Most of us don’t get nearly enough protein, carbs and fat are no problem since they are the yummiest. When you visualize each meal throughout the day start with protein as being the central part of each meal.
- A serving of protein is about 4 oz or 24 grams.
- How much do you need? This is a controversial topic in the research world. Lets say a good rule of thumb is 1 gram per pound of body weight.
Phase 3- Meal Planning and structuring (take these steps in order)
Now we have a good foundation. We have significantly improved our current diet. Lets tackle some stuff that may have intimidated you before and make it less scary. We now know our total caloric requirement for each day as well as our protein requirement per day. Lets start fine tuning this bad boy.
- Macronutrients, what are they? Macronutrients are simple, there are 3 of them; protein, carbs and fat. You need all of them they are friends. They all work together and they all have a purpose. I implore you to ignore any fads that say one or the other is bad. They aren’t and there is no research to indicate otherwise. When you are planning each of the meals that you eat through the day (4-6) Think of these as guidelines.
- When you are planning your meal as I said in phase 2, protein is the building block. Imagine a plate (remember satiety):
- Start with protein (a deck of cards)
- Add veggies (every meal)
- Carbs (a serving size is a fist)
- Fats (serving size is a thumb)
- Accountability, How are you going to keep track of all of this? I recommend staying accountable by logging your food in an app like my fitness pal. It will help by calculating your total energy intake, expenditure and grams per day for each of the macronutrients.
- Note; My fitness pal in not 100% accurate neither is any fitness tracker. Don’t take any of this a written in stone. No device can know your exact energy expenditure and my fitness pal isn’t measuring and weighing the food you are eating. The purpose is solely to provide you accountability and guidelines. Whether or not you choose to log the food you still ate it. Whether or not you tacked a workout you still did it.
Phase 4- Meal Timing
Here is where we are really fine tuning. We will begin working on pre and post workout nutrition. All of these phases and steps are designed to make things simpler and help us understand more so that we are in control. As always it is our hand grabbing the food and putting it in our mouths
People are really passionate about what works for them, myself included. I want to do what’s best for my body in the long term. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to be hungry. I want it to be simple and above all else it needs to make sense. I never ever do anything because someone says so, who is to say they are any kind of authority? Anything I preach or practice I research heavily so I can say this with assuredness; nutrition is not black and white. What works for one person may not be optimal for another because everyone has different limiting factors such as lifestyle, age, genetics, occupation, dieting history or social life to name a few. Also, everyone has different goal. We cant sacrifice our long term goals for our short term goals.