There are so many dietary approaches out there, but which one is the best one? High fat, low fat, high carb, low carb, Vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, Keto... to intermittent fasting, to one meal a day, to small, frequent meals every 2 hours... to extreme things such as cabbage soup diets and juice cleanses. It seems like each week there is a "new and
improved" way to eat. When someone decides to change their diet, whether it's to lose weight or just improve their overall health, there are unlimited choices, and it's easy to be overwhelmed. So, which one is the best? The answer is none of them... AND (almost) all of them. (I say 'almost' because cabbage soup diets and juice cleanses aren't really a diet... they are extreme measures to be used for a short period of time. I don't advocate them)
A healthy diet is very individualized. Every person has a different genetic makeup, a different microbiome (gut bacteria), and a different lifestyle. These factors contribute to how a person metabolizes food, and how they store or lose fat, and how they gain or lose muscle. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a diet. Yet, diet can be a very hot topic, as people tend to be very dogmatic about it and they believe their approach is the best approach and/or only approach. Period. This simply isn't true. I've seen this myself in my experience as a nutritionist, as well as reading evidence from clinical trials testing all different dietary approaches. I can use the same approach with 2 different clients, and get 2 different results. So, how do you know what the best approach for you is? Trial and error... and consistency. You have to find what fits your lifestyle, your preferences, and gets you the results you want. Yes, you will have to make changes to your diet if you are wanting to change your health or physique. There's no debating that... you can't keep doing the same thing you're doing, but expect different results. That's called insanity. ;)
So, where do we start? When I am helping someone with their nutrition there are a few basic guidelines I follow, and then I make adjustments from there to get the best results for them.
Eat more plants. The bulk of your diet should be vegetables. Notice I said vegetables, not fruits and vegetables. Yes, fruit is healthy and should be included in a healthy diet, but fruit is not the same as a vegetable. Fruits have a higher sugar content than most vegetables, and hidden sugars are one of the main contributing factors to the obsesity/health crisis we have today. So, focus on lower carbohydrate vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, brussel sprouts, green beans, etc. at each meal. Vegetables like these should make up at least half of your plate (if not 75% of your plate). These will add bulk to your diet and will make you feel full with very little Calories. They will add fiber to your diet which is good for your GI tract and overall health. They will provide you with vitamins and minerals which are essential to a healthy body and metabolism. You should consume between 5-7 servings of VEGETABLES per day, and 1-2 servings of fruit. The remaining 25-50% of your plate at each meal is divided into protein, fat, and starches. More to follow...
Eat consistent protein. At each meal you should have some source of protein. It can come from plant or animal sources. (If you are consuming strictly plant sources of protein you will need to pair different sources together to ensure you are consuming a "complete" protein - meaning it has all of the essential amino acids we need for optimal health and body composition) Protein is slower to digest than carbohydrates, and it will lessen the impact of blood sugar spikes when you do eat carbs. There is some debate as to whether this actually has an impact on weight, but no matter what, protein will help keep you from experiencing a "crash" and hour or two after eating strictly carbs. Protein will keep you fuller longer, so you can go longer between meals. Protein is the macronutrient that is essential in repairing most tissues in our bodies, as well as maintaining/increasing muscle mass... which is essential to a healthy metabolism. The amount of protein you consume throughout the day will vary from person to person depending on muscle mass, activities such as strength training, and your microbiome, but I typically recommend getting at least 20g of protein at each meal... totaling between 0.5-1g/lb body weight per day. A slightly higher protein intake as been linked to better body composition, but consuming too much protein has detrimental effects on health... so, don't go overboard.
Eat fat at every meal. It's the low fat craze of the 70's, 80's, and 90's that has gotten America into the obesity epidemic we have today. For most of my life we have feared fat. When I was studying Dietetics in college we were taught that fat was bad, and we needed to minimize it as much as possible... well, this simply isn't true. There is strong evidence showing the contrary. Does this mean you need to go Keto or extremely high fat? No, but you do need to include healthy fats into your diet. Fats are essential to our health and our hormones. The cells in our bodies are primarily made up of lipids (fats). Our brains are 60% fat. Fats are essential to building a healthy body. Fats are also how our hormones are made. Hormones are chemical signals our bodies use in every physiological function. When one hormone level is off, it throws the whole system off. If you aren't consuming fats, you are unable to make adequate amounts of essential hormones, and your body, mood, and health will suffer. Fat also adds satiety and taste to each meal. You will feel fuller longer, and your food will taste better... plus, fats will help your body better absorb fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K). Without fat in your diet these vitamins will simply just pass through your system... it's not "you are what you eat"... it's "you are what you absorb". So, be sure to include 1-2 tbsp of fat at every meal for optimal health. The right sources of fat are critical as well, as "bad" fats such as trans fats, canola oil, margarines, etc. are detrimental to health. Stick to natural, healthy sources of fats such as coconut oil, GRASSFED butter (yes, butter!), avocado oil, olive oil, MCT oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, GRASSFED beef, WILD CAUGHT salmon, etc.
Fat first, carbs last. When I went through school we were taught to eat all your carbs in the morning, and then taper them at night, as carbs are the primary fuel source for most of us. However, the opposite is showing to be true. Carbs spike insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone our bodies produce to move sugar from our blood into our cells to he used for energy. Whatever can't be used immediately by our brains and body is then sent to our fat cells to be stored for later use. Insulin opens up those fat cells to receive the extra. However, with the abundance of food available to us today, we never really have to tap into those fat stores. After the sugar is cleared out of our blood our body produces hormones that signal to our brain that sugar is getting low again, so it's time to replenish... so we eat again to avoid hunger, brain fog, and keep our energy levels up, etc. So, we eat carbs, spike our insulin, and start the whole process over again. However, at night, when we sleep, our bodies go into a mild state of ketosis, where we use stored fat as an energy source to keep us alive while we sleep. So, when we wake up we are in a "fat-burning" state. We can extend that throughout the day by consuming mostly fat, and maybe some protein for our first few meals. So, instead or a danish, or even oatmeal, with your morning coffee, opt for whole eggs and avocado, or some other fat/protein source. You'll find you feel fuller longer, you will be less hungry throughout the day, and you can remain in that "fat-burning" state throughout most of the day when you are active. Also, by moving your carbs to the evening, you will sleep better as well. You know how after Thanksgiving dinner we're all ready for a nap? Tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey that has been linked to sleep has been the blame for many years, but in reality that "slump" is actually caused by the huge carb bomb of mashed potatoes, pies, etc. We spike our blood sugar, and experience a "crash" after insulin has started it's work of moving that sugar to our cells. So, the moral of this story is... eat your carbs in the evening.
Learn what a serving size is. Portion distortion in this country is terrible. We over-consume Calories simply because there is more food than we actually need sitting in front of us. We think we're eating a "serving" of something, but in reality we're consuming 2-3 times what an actual "serving" is supposed to be... that equates to 2-3 times as many Calories than we need to maintain our weight... too many Calories in, and it will be sent to our fat cells to be stored. The best way to accurately learn what a serving size actually looks like is to weigh and measure your food... at least for a little while. I know it's a pain in the @$$, but it really is the best way. Throughout my competition preps I've had to weigh and measure all of my food, so now I can eyeball what a portion should look like... and I am incredibly accurate most times. If you don't want to weigh and measure your food, then use smaller plates. Studies have shown that individuals who eat from smaller plates eat fewer Calories overall. Our brains are deceptive, and will cause us to eat more if there is more on our plates... even if we don't need those extra Calories. By making this simple switch you can save a few hundred Calories at each meal, without feeling deprived... which can lead to fat loss over time.
Don't drink your Calories. This includes soda AND juice. I doubt anyone would argue that soda is healthy, but juice has been sold as a "health food" for decades. For many they consume their morning OJ as a source of vitamin C thinking they are making a healthy choice. In reality, they are 1) spiking that insulin first thing in the morning and putting themselves in that "fat-storing" mode all day, and 2) they are adding to their overall Calorie intake. A large glass of OJ can have hundreds of Calories in it. These are extra Calories that the body has to burn before it can start using stored fat. Plus, with juice you are not getting any of the fiber or any other benefits from consuming whole foods. So, instead of drinking your Calories, eat them. You'll feel fuller longer, and your body will actually burn more Calories throughout the digestion process to break that food down. Drink water, coffee, or unsweetened tea instead. Your waistline will thank you. ;)
There are a lot more options to building a healthy diet, but these are a few basic guidelines that are pretty universal for everyone. If you start here, you can then tweak other aspects such as meal timing, macro ratios, etc. to perfectly fit your lifestyle. In reality, there is no "perfect diet"... it's about figuring out what works for your biology and your lifestyle... because consistency is the key to success. It doesn't matter what amazing results you get from a diet... if you can't maintain those habits for life, you will soon lose any results that you did achieve. Whatever you do to change is what you need to do to maintain, so pick habits that are as simple as possible and that you enjoy. The more you enjoy your eating habits, the more successful you will be in your quest for a healthy body and lifestyle.
What successful healthy habits have you incorporated into your diet? Let me know!