First and foremost, I would like to acknowledge that there is A LOT of information out there about diet and nutrition and, often, it seems overwhelming and it leaves folks feeling very unclear about how to get a handle on this whole food and nutrition thing.
Second, I would like to assure you that good nutrition can be (and, in my opinion, should be) simple and effective.
Sometimes though, simple does not mean easy. More on that in a bit.
What is good nutrition?
What does it mean to be “healthy”? It’s worth taking some time to think about that and maybe even jot down some of those ideas.
Do you know what you need to do in order to feel “healthy”? Healthy can mean many different things to different people, and consequently, ideas about the things you need to do in order to feel healthy will vary as well.
A question that’s worthwhile considering is this: where did those ideas come from?
Who taught you what you know about nutrition?
Perhaps you learned ideas about nutrition from your family or the significant adult(s) in your life as you grew up. It’s hard to imagine anyone not having been influenced by the media—talk shows, magazines, even popular books. Maybe (probably) your own past experiences with food and nutrition have influenced your thinking.
But the trick of it is that in many, many cases, most of what folks know about nutrition was taught to them by people who know little or nothing about nutrition!
And much of that information may have been hammered into your brain without you even being aware of it.
There are three key criteria to consider when choosing to follow nutrition advice:
- Is it simple and easy to follow?
- Is it supported by science?
- Have others had demonstrable success with it?
With that in mind, let’s talk about some simple and effective basics that satisfy all of those three criteria:
Eat every 3-4 hours-ish.
Let’s paint a picture of what this might look like:
- Mid-morning Snack
- Mid-afternoon Snack
Here’s the thing: it’s true that some people do well with less frequent (and thus, larger) meals. Some people are even fond of intermittent fasting. But for most people—particularly if you’re new to eating like an athlete—eating more frequently will stimulate adaptations in your body (changes in body composition, energy levels, etc.) faster.
Eat protein-dense food with every meal and snack.
In my experience coaching other folks with nutrition, I’ve noticed that for one reason or another (I mostly blame the talk shows and magazines), people simply do not eat enough protein. As a guideline, the starting point for males is two palm-sized portions of protein with every meal. For females, it’s one palm-sized portion with every meal.
However, bear in mind that is the starting point. In general, athletes tend to need more protein.
We should pause here for a moment to address something that might be on your mind: calorie counting (and, by extension, “macro” counting).
All of this is premised on the idea of energy balance:
–>More calories in than energy expended = weight gain (which can also mean ‘build muscle’, if the stimulus for muscle growth is a part of this equation)
–>Take in fewer calories than you expend = weight loss.
The thing is, we get our numbers for the calories we’re taking in from food packaging and databases and the methods used for these calculations are surprisingly imprecise. Usually, the number that makes it onto a food label is an average. It’s worth noting that the FDA allows errors of up to 20% either way.
And then the calories available for absorption by your body can change based on how the food is prepared.
And then there are the variable degrees to which your body may actually absorb some or all of the calories available.
And that’s just the “calories in” part of the equation. (You can read more about this here). “Calories out” can be tricky to calculate as well.
Now, this probably has you thinking ‘well if all that doesn’t work…what do you do?’This is where we arrive at serving size approximations, using the size of your hand as a guide—and then you would adjust your serving sizes, if necessary, based on how you feel after eating and what sort of outcomes your diet gets you.
Include vegetables in every meal and snack.
The guideline to use here is two-three fist-sized portions of veggies in every meal. Snacks should just have something from the vegetable category—eating more veggies isn’t going to hurt, so as long as there’s some form of veggie in there, you’re good to go.
Save carb-heavy meals for after exercise.
Here, we mean rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. Starchy, complex carbohydrates (as opposed to simple carbohydrates like sugar).
The short version here is that your body is better able to process carbohydrates within the 3-hour window post-exercise.
Include a good balance of healthy fats in your diet.
For a few reasons that are beyond the scope of this post and a bit beyond my full understanding, some geniuses out there, using bad science, began a process that resulted in years and years of the message being that fat is bad. That dietary fat is what makes people fat.
Unfortunately, that’s not even remotely true, nor is there any science to support the idea.
Dietary fat is absolutely essential for good health and, when consumed in a healthy balance, can actually help you to lose body fat.
Our serving guideline here is a thumb-sized portion.
As you may already know, we have three kinds of fats: saturated fats and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
You probably needn’t worry about your dietary saturated fat content. If you eat food with protein in it, chances are it comes with some saturated fat. You can, of course, cook with some butter or coconut oil for good measure.
Monounsaturated fats come from nuts, olives and olive oil.
[NOTE: While nuts do have a little bit of protein, they have so much more fat than protein that they should be considered a ‘fat’ source rather than a substantial ‘protein’ source.]
You can get your polyunsaturated fats from flax seed oil, fish oil and mixed nuts.
If you were to follow these rules 90% of the time (where the other 10% of the time, you can eat anything you want), you’re sure to do well. But, be sure to do the serving-size ‘math’.
And, please note: eating “anything you want” 10% of the time doesn’t mean “eat a whole pizza” or “eat a whole barrel of ice cream”.
This may well be a lot to digest in just one weekly lesson. If you’re curious about how this all looks in the context of one meal, here’s a (lengthy) post from Precision Nutrition (the folks who certified me as a nutrition coach): https://www.precisionnutrition.com/pn-my-plate
And, of course, if you have any questions or need some help with getting this nutrition thing figured out, let me know.