"I'm new this to whole nutrition gig. Where do I start?"
So you've reached that point in your life where you're no longer just thinking about getting healthier, it's time to take action. You're at a point where you want to break out of the rut you're in and get started.
The First Step...
The mainstream advice you'll get with nutrition uses a lot of jargon and marketing buzzwords. And no doubt you'd have heard some of the following:
- Just eat whole foods
- No carbs after 4pm
- Eat like a caveman
- If you can't pronounce the ingredients, don't eat it
While this may sound like simple advice it really doesn't give you a plan to work with to get you long-term sustainable results.
Slogans and sound-bytes just don't get the job done.
What you need is a simple step-by-step approach that starts from where you are now.
This is not a set of rules to follow like you would with a diet. Eventually diet rules are going to break because the real world gets in the way and a diet is never written with the real world in mind.
When you're starting out you want to focus your time and energy in a way that is going to give you best return on your investment. But also regardless of the eating style you adopt it will allow you to make decisions based on your results and adjust accordingly.
Step 1: Identify and Eliminate Nutritional Deficiencies
For many people the first thing they are going to do aim for a complete overhaul.
"No more sugar"
"No more bread and pasta"
"No more cheese and other dairy products"
"I gotta eat more protein"
"A little more fruit and more veggies"
"I'm not drinking enough water"
"I'll join a gym and get more exercise"
That list right there is pretty comprehensive but as a whole, way too challenging as a starting point.
By taking this all out approach you're setting yourself up for a tough time right out of the blocks.
But you're also overlooking a key point that is making you feel pretty lousy.
Your body is just not working that well and that means you'll struggle with the way you feel and look.
When you're lacking certain vitamins and minerals your body will not be operating at it's best.
Regardless of how good you think your diet might be there is a very good chance you'll be deficient in some areas.
And when your body is missing key vitamins and nutrients will make you feel pretty crappy.
Is It Really That Important?
Energy levels, strength, appetite, endurance and your mood are reliant on getting good levels of these essential nutrients. And when you don't get enough, stuff breaks down.
So even if you're "on paleo" or "eating clean" or "eliminating carbs" and doing everything right you can still feel like garbage.
That is why it's crucial to identify your shortfalls at the start and get rid of them one-by-one.
The Most Common Nutritional Deficiencies Are:
Water (low level of dehydration)
Vitamins and Minerals
Protein (especially women and men with low appetites)
Essential Fatty Acids
You could also get your diet looked at by a dietitian but there is an easier way and it's quite simple.
Drink a little more water each day
Eat more foods rich in vitamins and minerals
Find a way to eat more of your favourite protein rich foods
Consume more essential fatty foods by using fish oil or eating fish
By focusing on just one of these areas for at least 2 weeks you'll experience a noticeable improvement in your body function.
Step 2: How Much Food And The Type Of Food
Now that you've addressed the nutrient deficiencies it's to move on to the next step and that involves two very important points:
- The amount of food
- The types of food (protein, carbs and fats)
This next step does not involve calorie counting, although recording your actual calorie consumption can be a helpful initial awareness exercise, it is not the best approach for long-term sustainable results.
The idea is to remove the accountancy aspect from eating, it should not be about tracking, spreadsheets, and mental arithmetic.
This is not to discount the importance of calorie intake but outsourcing it to an unnatural act of record keeping is ignoring the perfectly evolved system of hunger and appetite cues we are born with.
The point here is to reconnect with your body and listen to what it is telling you and improve the long-term success of your healthy eating.
The unfortunate problem with counting calories is that it's just not that accurate. An accepted variance is about 25% due to incorrect labelling, differences in food quality and preparation, and human error.
By all means do the math if you can stand it but know that the system is broken.
A Simple Alternative To Counting Calories
You were born with two ready made measuring tools for controlling your calorie intake, your hands.
For example a good starting point for men would be to eat:
- 2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
- 2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
- 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at most meals; and
- 2 thumbs of fat dense foods at most meals.
And for women:
- 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal;
- 1 fist of vegetables at each meal;
- 1 cupped handful of carb dense foods at most meals; and
- 1 thumb of fat dense foods at most meals.
This allows you to see how much food that is on a plate.
Then it's a simple process of adjusting depending on how you feel and what your body is telling you.
It will be hard to judge how your body will react so be prepared to make changes based on hunger and fullness signals and your activity levels. This is a dynamic process that will ebb and flow so don't make snap judgements and use this question "How's that working for you?" to make changes based on outcomes.
Step 3: Personalise The Details
By eliminating nutritional deficiencies and eating the right foods in the correct amounts this step is really a minor concern.
Meal Frequency or How Often Should I Eat?
There is no hard and fast rule on this detail. It is a case of personal preference, it might suit you to eat smaller meals more often or larger meals less often.
What About Workout Days? Should I Eat More or Less?
If you're lifting weights or doing high intensity exercise than adding a starchy carb to your normal diet will help with the increased energy demands.
On days where you're less energetic then forget about the starchy carbs and focus on mostly protein, and vegetables and healthy fats.
What About Meal Timing On Workout Days?
This is not a concern for most of us unless your an elite level athlete with specific goals who maybe training at high intensity levels and sometimes multiple times a day.
If you fall into this category then eating as outlined above, 1-2 hours before and after exercise.
And during exercise you could have a branched chain amino acid drink or a protein, carbohydrate drink.
Let me give you a gentle reminder that if your goals are just for general health and fitness and to look and feel better then Step 3 will only become important when you've:
- identified and eliminated nutritional deficiencies;
- taken control of your total food intake
- gotten the right amounts of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats
You must be doing these things consistently week in week out before you add more skills to master.
Now that you've reached the point where you're wanting to regain control of your health and nutrition but was unsure of what to do next then I hope that this article has given you some simple steps to try.
- Get rid of your nutritional deficiencies.
- Get control of your calorie intake and not by counting calories.
- Eat the right amount and types of food.
- Ask yourself "How's that working for you?" and adjust accordingly.
- Do the above consistently and for a while before adding more detail.
If you feel like your nutrition’s off track – but aren’t sure what to do about it – hopefully this article has given you something new to consider and try.
Regardless of whether you're a beginner and trying to get the right strategies in place from the start or you've had some experience but have hit a speed bump, then the above steps when followed in sequence are a powerful system for long-term, sustainable results.