Forget Every Thing You Think You Know
Almost everything you think you know about nutrition is either wrong or half-right, which is perhaps even more of a problem. The way we discuss nutrition in our culture is deeply flawed: we need to empty the cup in order to fill it up with clean water.
When was the last time someone told you that they were on a diet? Do you think they could have explained how and why that diet worked, if you asked them? Do you think it works at all?
The problem for most people when it comes to diets is that they actually don’t understand how their body works. People are willing to work hard if they know the path to success, but the current stereotype of a diet involves cutting out anything enjoyable or filling and living on veggies and unseasoned chicken breast—or some overpriced dietary replacement drink.
The fundamentals of nutrition have never changed—humans have worked the same way for thousands of years, but you can’t sell that because it’s not sexy. However, getting these fundamentals correct is going to be the cornerstone of your success: you can’t out-work a horrible diet.
THE NEW (OLD) FOCUS
We need to discard the new-age nonsense of cleanses and all-juice diets, without trying to be a bodybuilder living on bland and uninteresting foods for the sake of it. This is the approach of a scientific diet: find a balance between what you want and what science says is optimal.
You’ve got to prioritize the basics just enough to allow you to achieve your goals without making your diet unsustainable, leaving a little space for enjoyment of luxury foods in moderation. This helps keep everything balanced.
After all, you want you to be able to stick with this diet, and that’s not possible when you drive the calories through the floor and have nothing enjoyable to eat.
THE PROBLEM WITH NUTRITION: SETTING UP MODERATION AND PROGRESSIVE IMPROVEMENT
The idea of how we tackle nutrition is simple: set up the basics of good dieting and then, from there, include moderate intake of luxury foods and continual substitutions for better foods over time.
This is the approach that produces results: get a ton of the work done with awareness and basics, then work on slowly tweaking it to get better and better with progressive, gradual improvements. You don’t have to go from your normal diet to something perfect and flawless.
This reflects the kind of realistic expectations you want in your goals: start smaller, address the biggest issues, and then focus on specifics when these good habits are set up.
TRIAGE UNTIL THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS ARE SMALL PROBLEMS
What we do with diet is this: start by focusing on the biggest problems and priorities. Then, when that’s done, we focus on the next biggest. You repeat this process until the biggest problem is actually really small and you’ve “accidentally” managed to remove 90% of the imperfections in a diet.
This is an approach that lets you work through at your own pace without dropping you in at the deep end or expecting you to change 50 things at once.
Concentrate on one change at a time, make it stick, and then repeat the process again and again.
As I’ve mentioned above, clearly persistence and consistency are leading the way again. Now let’s look at what the nutrition science says you need to focus on and how to deal with it—the real nutrition science!
Basics Of Nutritional Science
These are often demonized, but calories are just a measure of the energy that you get from eating and digesting a food. This doesn’t mean it’s healthy or unhealthy—what’s unhealthy is getting the wrong quantity of calories for your goal in a day or a week.
Calories only tell us what happens with weight, not what that weight is or what it does. Eating more calories than you use in a day means you’re going to gain weight (as either muscle or fat), while eating less than you use in a day means you’re going to lose weight (again, either as muscle or fat).
The amount you use in a day is an estimate called the Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), and we use this as our starting point for how much we need to eat in a day. You can log your food with mobile apps like MyFitnessPal to keep track of what you eat through a day.
This kind of tracking is awesome because, if nothing else, you’ll come to understand what is in certain foods. This can be a huge part of the dietary process, showing you where you’re over-eating, often without even knowing it!
People “on a diet” tend to restrict calories, as this is how you achieve fat loss, while muscle-gain diets are usually in a calorie surplus. Setting your own goals is key here to make sure you’re getting the right quantity of calories.
You usually want to be around 300 to 500 calories above or below your TDEE. More than 500 under tends to be too restrictive and can cause more muscle loss, while more than 500 calories over the TDEE will likely cause more fat gain than intended.
These are also great lines for keeping progress sustainable and being able to commit to the process for an extended period of time. They also match up with the progress speed I mentioned above: 500 calories under your TDEE every day will produce around 1lb of fat loss per week, or around 0.5lb of muscle gain.
Macronutrients are the major building blocks of food and are the most plentiful nutrients within it, hence the name. There are three macronutrients that each have an important role in the diet:
Proteins are one of the building blocks of cells and are primarily used in the body to repair or build crucial tissues, with muscle being one of those. Bones, tendons, muscles, and organs are all heavily dependent on proteins—more of them in the diet means better metabolism, better muscle growth, and prioritizing fat-burning when we eat under our TDEE.
Carbohydrates are the main short- and mid-term energy source for the body. They include sugars and starches, as well as the non-digestible fiber, which is key for metabolic and digestive health. Carbs are going to make up a decent portion of the diet and what matters is the quality of source you choose. Ideally, this means more starches and fiber, especially from pulses and whole grains.
Fats are important for cell membranes, keeping the brain healthy (especially as you age), and help with hormonal health. They’re more calorie-dense than either protein or carbs, so you want to get less of them. They’re also longterm energy sources, for when you run out of carbohydrates in the body.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals—they’re not any less important, they just don’t tend to have calorie values. Your body doesn’t use them for energy or as the building blocks of tissues, but they do play secondary and supporting roles to these processes, and you’re going to run into major health risks if you’re deficient in vitamins and minerals.
It’s easy to look at it in an oversimplified way: micronutrients are all about health. They relate to things like performance results, but they’re mostly important for keeping your organs healthy and functioning as intended.
There are 25 essential vitamins and minerals that you need to focus on, but they’re all provided through a combination of lean proteins, choosing the right carb sources (like pulses and whole grains), and then a good quantity and variety of fruits and veg.
There are 12 essential vitamins:
And 13 essential minerals:
These are a lot to remember, but just note that they’re the ones to focus on. What we want to do is avoid deficiency, which is primarily done by eating the kind of diet outlined above, but also through the variety and range of plant foods in the diet.
Focus should go specifically to getting lots of B vitamins, vitamin D, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, and iron. It’s definitely worth getting your vitamin and mineral levels checked with your doctor whenever possible so you can look at what specifically is missing from your diet.
As we get through the basics, you can start looking at your sources of carbs and vitamins and minerals. Some sources are better than others for their concentration of pseudo-vitamins, but more specifically we’re looking to focus on whole foods.
These are the kinds of “real foods” we want in the diet because they tend to contain fiber, better ratios of proteins to fats, and they’re usually more nutrient dense. What you want to avoid is demonizing non-whole foods, though.
Some foods are specifically designed to get the best of a whole food, or are refined in ways that simply make them better to eat without compromising the nutritional or health qualities of the food. The idea is to get whole foods in the diet wherever possible and avoid depending on non-whole foods.
This is a good thing to work on in the long run, but it should not be your focus until you’ve already gotten your calories and macronutrients in place. Many people fail their diets by rushing straight to this step and ignoring the more important stuff above!
You can get a little more benefit out of your food if you eat it at specific times. This is a step beyond food selection and it’s where you really start getting into the fine details. It’s not something you need to worry about too much, but here’s a quick overview.
Carbs are better consumed closer to exercise, and consumed less further away from exercise and activity. Sugars, specifically, are best consumed very near exercise or even during in order to keep your energy levels up and maintain glucose levels during exercise. This has been related to improved performance and is the best time to get in that sugary snack you’re in love with.
Proteins are best dosed regularly through the day if possible, but specifically after exercise and activity. Post-workout meals should focus on proteins and carbohydrates, as these are the resources that exercise depletes and eating them supports the systems that repair and develop muscles and tendons.
Fats should be consumed even further out of exercise than carbohydrates since they’re a slower source of energy and can often sit heavily. We want to reduce, but not eliminate fat intake around the time of exercise to keep the digestive system happy, saving fats for breakfasts and evening meals after our workouts.
You don’t need supplements, but they can provide a great helping hand for a diet – whatever level you’re at. Even if you’re mastering the diet and putting 100% effort in, you can benefit from strategic supplement use.
We see this in elite athletes: people whose diets are perfect, but they’re still using multivitamins, protein supplements, creatine, and cod liver oil, as well as an effervescent. These are the kinds of supplements you should look at.
Supplements allow you to top up your diet with compounds important for performance and health in a convenient way. They’re ways of improving your intake without having to eat a ridiculous amount of fish, beef, or eggs, for example.
This is when concentrated sources are great—but, again, you shouldn’t use them to replace a shortcoming in your diet. The idea is that they are supplementary: they’re added on top of a good and developing diet, but they’re not a replacement for good dietary habits.
A diet isn’t just a collection of scientific principles about metabolism and nutrients. It’s a habit change that has a person at the middle of it – and these factors need to be considered because they’re going to be about your experience on a diet.
After all, science doesn’t do the work for you: simply knowing what you need to do doesn’t make it happen. That comes from the hard work of being self-aware with your diet and working on the bits that you’re bad at, improving your habits day by day, and making good choices when that cake is calling to you.
Remember that dieting is a fallible process and you’re going to make mistakes—you’re going to stumble, and you’re going to have bad days. The ideal response is to just forget about it. You want to avoid anything like guilt or a spiral of “I’ve failed, may as well give up” that you see so often
“No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still WAY AHEAD of everyone who isn’t trying.”