In the world of health and fitness, there is a constant influx of conflicting information that can often times present dogmatic opinions of what is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and right or wrong. Most websites and magazines provide explanations as to why their “evidence based research” is the answer to all your problems, offering to solve this complex formula for you.
Fad diets are popular because they work. Atkins wouldn’t be around for as long as it has if it didn’t. For most people, however, they are sustainable for a short period of time and are successful for a small minority that take extreme measures and make huge sacrifices that most wouldn’t consider.
First and foremost, food is not inherently good or bad, and anyone that gives you any type of hard or absolute answer is simply misinformed. Food is our bodies’ energy source and without it we would not be able to survive. Furthermore, sugar is not bad, fat is not bad, sodium is not bad, and processed foods are not bad. All of these foods have their time and place in the diet for performance and enjoyment, some in higher quantities than others. Different foods contain different chemical components that interact with the body on both large and small scales. For some individuals, it is necessary to avoid certain foods in the case of food allergy or food intolerance.
There are instances where strict dieting is optimal to achieve specific goals, for example, a bodybuilder who is preparing for a competition. Strict dieting can be psychologically and physically exhausting and requires sacrifices in all areas of life. This tactic will provide short-term success, but is unsustainable and can cause health issues long- term. Allowing oneself dietary freedom and balance has shown to provide long-term success and a healthy relationship with food. Having general guidelines, discipline and willpower, and understanding portion control provides a sustainable lifestyle choice rather than a “diet”.
In terms of dieting, it is important to consider that what works for your friend or family member is not necessarily what will work best for you. Everyone has a different body composition and different biochemistry, so the breakdown of foods and your aesthetic look will be different. Food intake should always be individualized based on lifestyle, metabolic levels, health history, and goals. One of the primary goals (and subsequent outcome) of flexible dieting is the ability to be mindful and aware of what you are eating.
Finally, in order to reach your goals you have to want to. If you believe that you are capable of accomplishing your goals, you most certainly will. Efficacy has extremely powerful cognitive effects. In other words, research has shown you can will your body to do what your mind tells it to.
Macronutrients, or “macros”, are the calorie-containing nutrients that provide energy for the body to function which include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Macros are made up of calories; therefore, if you’ve ever counted calories, you have inadvertently counted macros.
Proteins are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle and connective tissue (skin, tendons, ligaments, and hair). Protein helps fuel muscle mass, prevent muscle breakdown, support a healthy immune system, stabilize blood sugar levels, and strengthen hair, skin, and nails. Additionally, adequate protein consumption spread throughout the day will aid in burning calories. The recommended amount of protein depends largely on activity levels, however, protein consumption should be consistent whether or not you are an active individual.
Carbohydrates are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules and are the body’s main source of energy. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all considered carbohydrates but have varying levels of complexity. Depending on body size, activity levels, dietary fat intake, and specific goals, the recommended amount of carbohydrate is altered. Carbohydrates are a variable macronutrient. Daily carbohydrate intake for active individuals should not be less 30% of daily caloric intake if performance is a priority. Manipulating carbohydrate intake around exercise can be beneficial and on highly active days, more carbohydrate can be used as an energy source to fuel and power through intense workouts.
Fats are the densest macronutrient composed of fatty acids, which make up triglycerides macronutrient. Dietary fat helps manufacture and balance hormones, forms the brain, cell membranes, the nervous system, and transports fat-soluble vitamins. The large majority of fat intake should come from unsaturated fats (mono and polyunsaturated) such as olive oil, avocado, seeds and nuts. Saturated fats including animal products such as bacon, hot dogs, deli meat, butter, and cheese should be consumed sparingly and viewed as a “condiment” rather than a main course.
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are just as vital to performance and regulatory functions as macronutrients but required in smaller amounts. Their inclusion in the diet are of importance as they promote growth, digestion, energy transfer, and nervous system function.
Calorie balance is a hugely important factor when trying to gain or lose weight. A shift of calories either positively (increase in calories) or negatively (decrease in calories) directly results in weight loss or weight gain. That said, the body is a very elaborate and complicated process and many factors come into play during weight gain and weight loss. Throughout the course of one day weight shift can range from 1-5 lbs based on hydration, food intake, inflammation, etc. Additionally, calorie balance plays a crucial role in metabolism and metabolic rate.
Metabolism is the conversion of food into energy used by the body to perform activities. Exercise is a major metabolic up regulator, however, metabolism declines 2-4% after age 25 and most people lose about 5lbs of lean muscle mass per decade. Contrary to popular opinion, metabolic decline is not solely associated to age and lifestyle plays a large role.
Nutrient timing is a much more specific variable and accounts for a very small percent of success, but can still play a significant role in achieving performance and aesthetic goals over time. Nutrient timing is based on spreading macronutrients throughout the day with 3-5 hour gaps between meals while favoring certain macros based on activity levels. Proteins stay relatively consistent and are spread evenly throughout the day to aid in blood sugar level stabilization and satiety. Fat and fiber consumption is kept to a minimum around training time primarily because they are difficult to digest. Fat and fibrous foods also aid in blood sugar stabilization while fiber aids in digestion. Carbohydrates are the most easily digested macronutrient, therefore, the majority of carbs (roughly 60-70%) should be consumed around training time. Consumption of carbohydrates 60-90 minutes pre- workout, intra-workout, and 3-5 hours post workout optimize the body’s ability to use blood glucose for fuel and recovery. Consuming carbohydrates post workout reduces the depletion of muscle glycogen (roughly 90% of carbohydrate storage) and aid in recovery and preparation for the next training session.
Supplementation should be the smallest component of nutritional intake. There are some products that have been researched and tested to show positive health benefits but before taking supplements, it is recommended to complete a simple blood test with a physician. Even a “standard serving size” could be dangerous, toxic, or simply unnecessary. Furthermore, the right food can replace just about any supplement with few exceptions.
At the end of the day, a moderate and consistent diet will trump a rigid one when longevity is the goal. Nutrition at its foundation is complex because the human body using this food for energy is extremely complex but it can be made a lot simpler if you do one thing: Your body will tell you what it needs if you pay close attention.
It’s normal to have days of feeling unmotivated or lacking willpower but the more you listen to what your body needs and realize that one bowl of ice cream isn’t going to make you fat and one salad isn’t going to make you skinny is when you will start to see and obtain long-term success.