The best diet? Objectively it doesn’t exist. That’s why personalized nutrition strategies are essential, flexible and adaptive to time and life stages. Good nutrition is a balanced diet of enough of the right foods for your lifestyle and goals.
What is good nutrition?
Every year, we are introduced to a handful of new diets (Why? Well, diet culture and capitalism, in short) – Atkins, paleo, celery juice… each with strict rules claiming to be the best way that you can eat for your goals.
Diets, for the most part, have one thing in common – a calorie deficit. Different strategies to get there, same end-game. That is why they work in the short term and, as we know about restriction, the same reason they fail in the end.
Also – no care to actual wellness – where should your body be? What do YOU do the best eating? How do your body type, fitness level and ethics and budget fit into the equation? These are personal things. Once we figure out an individual plan, consistency – not hard, arbitrary rules – will coast you toward your goals.
Healthy eating does not mean you need to track and measure everything, survive on vegetables alone, spend hours and hours food prepping or never having that piece of cake. Good nutrition is the care for your food, paying attention to what we eat and need, being mindful and making deliberate choices you enjoy. That satiation helps us lose excess fat, gain muscle and perform better in our everyday lives.
When you don’t get what you need, though, things start to break down. Energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance and mood all depend on you getting what you need.
And the first step to mindful, deliberate choices? Feeling confident in your ability to know what you need to nourish yourself well and how to get it.
Let’s jump into macronutrients, the major building blocks of our diet, as our first step!
Introduction to Macronutrients
I want to talk about macronutrients first to set up a nutritional framework. Once we have that, it’ll help everything from understanding your cravings to grocery shopping and meal prepping effectively.
Macros, short for macronutrients, make up the food we eat. Macronutrients are simply the three primary macros all food items are composed of: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Each macronutrient equates to different energy levels or calories. For example, 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrate both have 4 calories, 1 gram of fat has 9.
Every food item has either a carb, protein, or fat to some degree. However, some foods are more heavily one or another. No one macronutrient is necessarily superior or worse than the other; there is an appropriate place in all diets for protein, carbs, and fats.
Carbohydrates are a significant and instant source of energy in most diets. Carbs fuel the body for workouts, the brain for daily function, aid in recovery from exercise (in conjunction with protein) and are the optimal macronutrient for thyroid and hormonal function. Carbohydrates are involved in blood sugar regulation based on the type of carb consumed and in improved gut health from fibre intake, which helps things move through our digestive system and feed our gut microbiome.
At 4 calories per gram, carbs are digested and stored in our liver and muscle tissues as tiny sugar molecules known as glucose. Glucose is the preferred and primary fuel source of our muscles and brain. Carbs get a bad rap, but they are NECESSARY.
Keep in mind: all carb sources you eat from raw sugar to broccoli (yes, veggies are carbs) are going to be broken down into tiny sugar molecules and stored in your liver, muscle or used as energy in glycolysis (the metabolic process that breaks down carbs). That said, different types of carbs will have different effects on your body, so we want to be sure we are choosing nutrient-dense carb sources when we can to fill ourselves with the good stuff and avoid quick blood-sugar spikes and crashes that leave us feeling groggy.
A little about whole grains:
Current dietary recommendations tell us we should make 50% of our grains whole. These are bread or food-based products that are carbohydrates in a non-refined way, meaning they have not been processed and are in their raw or processed together with their natural form intact. Think brown rice quinoa, sprouted bread, oats, etc. These are often packed with nutrients, can have a higher amount of protein than other standard grains, and are usually jam-packed with fibre.
And a little more about fibre:
Fibres are non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects. They are found in vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products. Fibres play an essential role in our gut health and ferment in our lower intestine. This can help with our gut health and may help improve weight status, health, and fullness. They also play an essential role in slowing digestion and regulating our blood sugar, so it stays stable rather than spiking or crashing between meals. It is also very filling!
Some carb Sources include: Potatoes (Sweet, Red, Rustic, Japanese), Rice (Brown, White, Jasmine, Basmati), Bread, Bagels, Cereal, Honey, Jelly/Jam, Flour or Corn Tortillas, Fruit, Pasta, Oatmeal, Granola, Vegetables, Quinoa, Plantains, Pumpkin, Pancakes, Waffles, Baby Food Pouches, Maple Syrup, Crackers, etc.
Protein is the building block macronutrient. It’s the foundation: it is an integral part of our DNA which tells our bodies to get things done and also helps with satiation and fullness.
At 4 calories per gram, proteins are essential for tissue growth, repair, development, and cellular function. Proteins contain an array of 20 amino acids needed to complete those tasks; 9 of which are essential to the human diet that our bodies cannot make on our own. Foods like animal products, soy, and quinoa, contain the full spectrum of 9 amino acids and are known as “complete proteins.” Other forms of protein like grains, beans, nuts, legumes, etc. contain only some of the 9 essential amino acids. These are best eaten in conjunction with one another and are known as complementary proteins. They can also be combined with complete protein sources, to ensure the body is given all 9 essential amino acids to “build” and repair tissues.
Protein is slow digesting, which can help you feel fuller longer, which may result in you eating more appropriate amounts, feeling full if you struggle with that – an advantage in many diets. It also can help with the satiety signals that are sent to the brain that tell your body you are fuller.
Some protein sources include: Eggs/Egg Whites, Turkey Sausage, Chicken, Wild Salmon, NonFat Cottage Cheese, Non-Fat Greek Yogurt, Protein Powder, Beef Jerky, Duck, Scallops, Tuna, Shrimp, Bison, etc.
At 9 calories per gram, fat is also a significant source of large amounts of energy and necessary in our diets as part of our cellular function. Fat gets a bad rap, but in a healthy diet, it plays a vital role in nutrition and energy production. There are a few types of fat, some better than others. To keep it simple – limiting saturated fat (like butter), eliminating trans fats (like margarine), and consuming mainly unsaturated fats (like salmon, olive oil and nuts) is a straightforward approach to start with.
Some fat sources include: Avocados, Almonds, Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Avocado Oil, Guacamole, Macadamia Nuts, Flax Seeds, Chia Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Almond Butter, Cashew Butter, Sunflower Seed Butter, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Cashews, Butter, Coconut, Olives, Sesame Seeds, Cheese, etc.
Why Is This Important?
Whether you choose to track them or not, it can be beneficial to have a general idea of how much food, and what kind of macronutrients, one should be eating in a day. You can use your new-found knowledge on macros to maximize the way your body processes what you eat and what you get out of it, like more energy for your morning or better recovery after your workouts.
For example, our bodies have no primary storage form for protein. It is therefore not ideal to eat all your daily protein at once, and it would be hard to do so! Instead, it is encouraged to eat protein continually throughout the day. It is suggested to eat around 0.30-0.40g/kg of bodyweight of protein, spread out between 3-6 meals and snacks throughout the day, depending on your lifestyle and goals. This supplies our bodies with continuous availability of amino acids (proteins) to use for muscle maintenance and repair. While the pre & post-workout window is beneficial for protein consumption, total daily intake is just as, if not the most important factor of protein intake.
For some, it could be helpful to eat a meal or snack with ~20-30g of protein 1.5-2 hours before your workout, upon completion of your exercise, and at each meal or following, up to your daily protein needs. This looks like one 3-4oz serving of any lean meat, 2-3 eggs, or 1 serving of whey/other protein powder.
Carbohydrates are also important post-workout: they cause an insulin response, which can act as an anabolic (muscle building) hormone alongside protein ingestion. This can help pull carbohydrates and protein into the muscle for the replenishment of glucose stores and to aid in muscle repair & top of glycogen stores.
For example, this could mean eating 30-50g+ before and after your workouts each day. Spread out the rest of your carbs, as you prefer. This can look like a bowl of cereal, 2 slices of bread, a ½ cup of rice, 1 packet of oatmeal or an apple.
Fats, on the other hand, can get in the way a little when it comes to our workouts due to being slow digesting. In this case, you might limit your fat intake to 10g or less before and slightly after your workouts (if you so choose to). Eat normally for the rest of the day!
Like everything else, though, we need to find out what feels and works best FOR YOU. As long as you are eating within a healthy caloric balance for your best functioning, and a diet filled with plenty of quality foods, you will make strides towards your goals.
Naturally, there is a significant, totally normal variation in day-to-day energy intake and energy expenditure. We don’t live in a void, and having changes in hunger and energy intake is perfectly normal. In fact, if we “listen” to our bodies, they do a pretty good job of maintaining body weight relatively stable in the long term.
At it’s absolute most basic, if you eat the same amount of energy as you expend, you will find weight balance. Tipping the scales in either direction can lead to weight loss or weight gain.
Maintenance calories are defined as the total number of calories required on a daily basis to maintain body weight. In short, your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). Most people are eating far below their projected maintenance caloric intake, but may not know that they are or are fearful of eating more food. The “eat less” and “do more” mentality may be a reason why. Most people don’t know how good their bodies are supposed to feel! Finding out how much you need to eat, and what ratios of macronutrients suit you best, is an adventure of trial and learning. By tapping into the biofeedback your body is telling you, we can adjust and refine until we have the best plan ahead for your goals!
You have probably heard of people who “track their macros”; that simply means they weigh/measure the food they eat daily and input the data into a food tracking app (like Cronometer or MyFitnessPal). This way, they can ensure they are eating enough food and in the proper and best macro balance for their unique body and goals.
One benefit of tracking macros in the short term is learning to eyeball portion sizes and knowing how much of what your body needs without throwing your food on a scale. Other, more flexible portioning strategies, like palm measuring, can also help you do this.
A small note on eating less energy than you expend…
Eating at maintenance calories for a majority of the year is critical and necessary for optimal health. This is how hormones can find homeostasis, our metabolism can thrive, and thyroid function can thrive. We cannot live in chronic dieting land, which, unfortunately, too many of us do. That puts an incredible amount of stress on the body, which means the body cannot do it’s regular daily operations because it doesn’t feel safe.
What we can do – though – is optimize what those calories are spent on, which results in getting all the nutrients you need to live a strong, badass life without going far over them because the things that you are eating don’t feel satisfying. Even if weight loss is your goal, maintenance calories will get you there if you are carrying more weight than your set point, or the weight at which your body naturally wants to sit in its healthiest and most energetic form.