What you “need” to know about nutrition; 15+ years in total of personal experiments, education and coaching others

Let me begin this post by telling you what I am not.

I’m not an amazing cook (I’m good), dietician (registered or otherwise), wellness or holistic guru (ew) or anything in-between that. I’m a trainer who has also coached nutrition for going on 6 years (I am certified with Precision Nutrition), with varying levels of success for my clients (some of them needed psychotherapy instead).

Prior to officially labeling myself as a “nutrition coach”, I dieted and experimented on myself prolifically and often ridiculously. I have been “thinking” about food, nutrition and my body since I was 16. If it’s discussed or argued in “diet and nutrition” circles scientifically, or pseudoscientifically, I’ve probably heard it, tried it, or read it.

Now at 33, with two teens I have managed to get completely free from the “dieting train”,  and diet dogma. I don’t count or track my food anymore. At all. I don’t struggle with food morality arguments and I don’t feel any sort of discomfort or confusion about what to eat and why and when and in what amounts.

Over the years, I’ve both educated myself relentlessly and put into action what I’ve learned, because you have to. Education informs application. Education and application should also lead to something else, something that is harder to achieve over time; sustainability of results, and enhanced flexibility.

That can mean many things, so this is what I mean: the ability to apply structure to your nutrition to reach your goals, while building an understanding of what your body needs physiologically, that will allow you to both keep your progress (sustainability) and move beyond very strict or rigid structures for food and nutrition (flexibility).

Personally, I fit a very “general demographic”. I work full-time, parent full-time, cook at home mostly, and look and feel good on a regular basis.

My current nutrition habits allow me to train hard, enjoy a variety of foods, and APPLY balance to my life, so that the mental effort required to achieve “balance” in my life is now far less than it used to be.

How?

I learned what mattered, and then learned to apply it.

It’s hard to know what’s “right” for any one person unless I can work with them individually, so the start is always in what is simplest, scientifically sound, and sensible in general. 

Simple so you can start.

Scientific so you can be successful.

Sensible, because common sense leads to sounder decision making over time, and the freedom to be flexible as your needs and body change


Hierarchy of importance;

You have to get the actual facts straight first. And your body is as literal as it gets.

Priority goes in this order

1.) Adequate calories

Adequate calories means finding out what calories you *should* be eating BEFORE you attempt to increase or decrease them for fat loss, or muscle gain or anything in between.

2.) Adequate nutrient balance

Nutrient balance is essential to health. Many "diets" make their name off of getting rid of certain food groups (carbs, fat, protein) or by labeling types of food as good or bad. Not necessary, and often not safe. Branded diets (Weight Watchers, Paleo, Primal. Whole30, The Zone, Atkins etc) can give you structure, but also ideological baggage and unnecessary beliefs about food. 

3.) Regularity (timing and frequency are flexible variables, that need to complement each other). You can eat anywhere from 2-6 meals a day at varying times in the day. It really is individual, as long as you respect 1 and 2. 

Regularity is a personal thing. Dependent on where you live, what your daily schedule is like and what you can put into action.

A lot of my clients ended up needing very simple recalibration of "how" they thought about food overall and an easier way to think of how to decide on meals, what ingredients to use frequently,  and which nutrition “beliefs” were unnecessary and should be removed from their decision-making framework, so that they could make changes that lasted and that reduced their reliance on diets, diet structures and diet coaches. 

Convenience and ease-of-action, are important for success. If you can't act, it won't matter. 

This doesn’t mean that nutrition changes are inherently easy. They are not. But they are easier with structure that is convenient to YOUR LIFE. That is crucial. Branded diets often can deliver that, but only if you know the foundational science first and what "good information that isn't trying to just sell you something" looks like. 


First:

Something I have found limiting to success is how people divide their "life", and the mental structure for how they think about their actions and habits overall from day to day; time constructs that have no actual bearing on human physiology. There is really no “week and weekend” to your body, so I recommend people don't think like that for their nutrition either.

What matters from a timing standpoint has to do more with your circadian rhythm or chronobiology. A day to day cycle and on a greater scale a month to month cycle (lunar).

7 days is a "week cycle" for many of us with typical "working lives. Yet, I have found failure to frequently follow dividing weeks from weekends. Not always, but often enough, especially for those who also have a "work week" vs "a weekend". Since those environments differ greatly, the division often leads to doing one thing during the week, and then doing something else during the weekend. 

In my experience dividing work life from home life, as it relates to your diet, more often than not contributes to keeping goals just out of reach, and leads to frustration. There are 7 days in the week, and while your work life may be divided into "the week and the weekend", that distinction does not matter to your body or your goals. Day to day, and month to month instead (women especially, because hormones). 

In my experience, I have found the division to often encourage continued moralized thinking about nutrition as well; "I'm being good, now I'm being bad", "This is good food, this is naughty food", "I eat well during the week, but on the weekend I want to relax" etc. which has often kept clients stuck in dieting cycles, going back and forth. Stressful mentally, and metabolically.

Your "diet"is what you eat everyday and food should not be moralized.

A healthy mindset and relationship about food is the precursor to success in dieting for fat loss or other body composition or lifestyle changes.

Consider not using any "moral" language in relation to diet, at all.

It is unhelpful.


Next:

Eat three meals a day. Keep it simple, and regular. You could eat more and eat less, but ask yourself WHY. 

Per research, there are no significant advantages to any specific number of meals. You can even intermittent fast, and eat only 1, as long as you are getting the calories and nutrients that you need. 

What matters for meal timing is: regularity. 


Next:

Before you can change what you do, you have to know what you are doing.

I recommend anyone interested in having control over their nutrition, track their calories and intake for at least 2 weeks. Tracking, in my experience, is not sustainable or healthy mentally, long term. Neither is it practical.

But, you do need to ACCURATELY KNOW what you are doing, before you can make any sensible changes. 

Then, using your own hand, is as accurate as you NEED to be, and will lead to being able to eyeball, guesstimate, and manage your nutrition with less mental effort over time, especially while you still need structure. 

Read here about controlling for amounts more simply, if you need that starting awareness.

You can be way more accurate if you choose, including weighing and measuring all your food, but for eyeballing amounts close to accurately, your hand works. 

“Good enough” measurements are good enough, because when you begin to pay attention in a way that doesn’t drain you, you can observe yourself more accurately, and make changes that have greater impact on progress. Good enough measurements are good enough because you are not a rat in a research lab and the numbers are not that precise in real life anyway. 

If you eat out all the time, you give up control over your nutritional health to a degree from perfectly ok (meal delivery, etc) to potentially dangerous (you’re a fast food junkie, make meal decisions constantly on the fly or are a heavy drinker, for instance). 

Consider your current choices and habits dispassionately. Consistency doesn’t necessarily mean “the same over and over.”

I think a lot of people miscontrue this about dieting. They love food, but are terrified of being bored and eating the same thing. It doesn’t need to be like that at all. 


Snacking:

This is a question I get a lot. "Can I snack?",  or "I snack a lot", "I'm a snacker."

If you get more calories from "snacks" than you are aware of, it will mess with your head and it will mess with your overall calorie and nutrient balance.

Why?

Snacking is often a mindless activity, rather than a mindful one. So calories and guilt can add up fast.

Fruit is high in nutrients. It’s simple, refreshing, and there are endless varieties available, frozen or fresh.

Snacking on fruit will not lead to fat gain or sugar imbalances unless you also have shitty diet habits, and overeat frequently. 

Add raw nuts if you need calories. 

Dried fruits if you need more calories. 

Fresh juices, and “junk” foods if you need even more calories regularly (especially those who lift and train hard! Adequate calories FIRST).

The enzymes, vitamins and minerals in fruit, are necessary to the cellular processes in your body. 

The research on this is straight forward. I recommend my clients snack on fruit. 


Next:

It is highly important to our internal systems that we eat at regular times, from day to day. 

The times that you CAN BE regular, are the times you “SHOULD” have your meals. 

There really no such thing as “optimization of meal timing” for fat loss or health, beyond common sense and regularity, per the research. 

It just doesn’t matter much at all in application, unless you are under medical orders that directly affect your diet. 

Meal timing does matter more if you engage in intense exercise or are an athlete. 

The general rule is: 

Eat after a workout, within 2 hours. That’s it. That is good enough. 


Fat fear-mongering:

Here’s the thing about fats. Don’t intentionally add extra fats to your food (remember calories), but do eat fat (nutrient balance). 

Avocados, olive oil, eggs, butter, animal fats (to a degree) and raw nuts are definitely part of a healthy diet. Definitely. 

Keto and high fat diets are a choice, but not often a sensible or healthy choice, and not a choice with long-term benefits for cognitive, metabolic and hormonal health.

This statement is controversial (which I find crazy per the research, if you bother reading it), but I’m past arguing about it. If you are obese or epileptic, than consult a doctor about the possibilities of using a ketogenic diet. For everyone else, choose wisely.

There are consequences to drastically changing your nutrient balance long term. Trading short-term success for long-term damage does not make sense. 


Organic hype:

"Organic" doesn’t matter to nutrition; that is what the research says

BUT getting high quality, local, in-season meats and produce is a good idea, if you can afford it. I like to support sustainable farming through grocery purchases, when I can. If not, you can still have calorie and nutrient balance, and therefore good overall nutrition, which matters more by far. 

Good nutrition is first; quantity over quality. The aim is both. 


Fruits and veggies; more is always good.

You should eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you like.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, doesn't know what they are talking about.

It is really rather impossible to overeat fruits and veggies, and neither do they contribute to fat gain, unless you are also getting enormous quantities of calories from other sources. And then, I wouldn't recommend you cut out the fruit! 

Fruit does not need to be avoided because of sugar content.

Avoiding fruit because it is too high in sugar, is not sensible or scientifically sound.

Unless medically indicated, avoid only the fruits and vegetables you don’t like.

Eat your colors. Eat all the colors. 

Lacking colors such as orange, purple, and red, leaves you at a loss nutrient-wise. Eat all the colors. Include orange and red intentionally. Peppers, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, beets, eggplants. Eating greens, especially lettuces and grassy greens, is not enough. Include greens, as much as you like as well, but a “salad” made of mostly lettuce, is not a healthy enough intake of veggies. 

Having a diverse diet is important for gut health. That is what the research says. You can get an incredible amount of variety simply, by rotating through different fruits, veggies, spices, and sauces, and by trying out cuisines from various geographical locations.

Including fermented foods in your diet, is a really good idea and cheaper than probiotics

Making and eating food that tastes good to you is really important for sustainable progress.


A note on being chronically under slept (under 7.5 hours regularly):

If you are chronically tired, you actually need more calories simply because of the lack of sleep (says the research), AND it will also be easier to overeat without full awareness, AND you will be more likely to store fat (sluggish, tired metabolism). 

Your body needs sleep to regulate and balance it’s internal systems. Without it, everything is slower and harder. 

If you consistently miss sleep, have poor sleep, and disregard your (brain and body is you) need for sleep, prepare to struggle. There is no substitute to getting enough sleep. NONE.


What are examples protein and carbohydrates? 

Carbohydrates are starches, grains, root vegetables cooked, sugars (every kind, artificial or "natural"), fruits, beans, legumes, some dairy. 

Proteins are any animal flesh from land, sea or air, beans, legumes, some dairy, some cheeses (though most are more fat), protein powders. 

Fats are in meats to varying degrees. Eggs, cheeses, and nuts are not full fat, but mostly fat. Butters, lard, oils, margarines. 

What I said above is about 90% accurate. But that’s good enough. If you want to be way more specific about the breakdowns of macronutrients (like, how much of an egg is protein, and how much is fat), than use MyfitnessPal or CalorieKing. Food lists are also helpful. 


Lastly:

I find it important that eating be a pleasurable experience. This does not mean hedonistic. There is a very important difference. Too many people connect “healthy” with “boring and unsatisfying”, and that is unfortunate. Hedonism, in my opinion, is the opposite of pleasure, as it relates to food. Hedonism implies a lack of awareness, and senseless over-consumption. 

Cook meals that taste good to you. Put effort into finding foods you enjoy. Build your cooking skills. 

For in-depth nutrition science from PhD'ers, as well as products such as meal plans, macro plans etc, I rely on Rennaissance Periodization products because they focus on what matters, design their products well, and back it up with science.

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