What is the hardest part of any fitness plan?
Many people think that the hardest part is going to the gym or getting out on the bike. The truth is, most people fail with nutrition and eating healthy, and for a good reason: nutrition is tough. After all, while you are training only once (maybe twice ☺) per day, you are eating at least 3 times a day. So much of our lives revolves around food. How many meetings or events have you been to that included food? The fact is, food is everywhere, and most of it is unhealthy. Everyone has their own superior diet or surefire way to lose that extra 10 lbs. Where do you even begin?
I knew almost nothing about nutrition growing up. I basically ate what I wanted, when I wanted. It was fine in high school when I was constantly exercising in one sport or another, but college was a different story. I blew up in college and gained 40 lbs. My diet consisted of beer, Taco Bell, and pizza. After college, I took a good, hard look at myself and realized I wanted to change.
Me in College.
Avoid the Diet Hype and Focus on Eating Healthy
I researched everything out there (my engineer side coming out) and found a plan I could stick with. At first I thought I was on a diet, but I realized later that it was a lifestyle. That is what nutrition really is. It is not a “diet” you stick to for a few months to lose those extra few pounds; it is a lifestyle that you develop and tweak to maintain health for your whole life.
I did not realize this right away. The journey from diet hype to habit is a process. It started small, with me making small, incremental changes. I quickly saw the benefits of good eating, and as I gained momentum, I created a nutrition plan that became part of who I was. My momentum slowly built until finally, I had lost that 40 lbs.
So where do you start? Like I mentioned, there are so many conflicting theories and diets out there, but the best method is to keep it simple. Make one change at a time and slowly add in other changes as you get used to that habit. Just like your goals, good nutrition is a process. You have probably been eating a certain way your whole life, creating a lifelong habit. Changing a lifelong habit takes time. Don’t expect to be perfect to start with; you will just burn yourself out. Remember, good is often better than perfect, and practice makes progress.
Learning how to eat healthy is far more important than losing weight. Weight can be an indicator of health, but is not the true gauge of health. How you feel every day is a much better indicator. Since changing my diet, I wake up feeling amazing and I have noticed a significant improvement in my mood and energy levels. Vegetables used to be a passing thought for me, but now I crave them.
Health nutrition begins with real food. When in doubt, eat whole, natural food. It should be straight from a farm. Processed foods are the devil! Avoid them. Fresh foods, or those packaged with only a few ingredients, are key. Start with the following recommendations to up your nutrition game!
Drink More Water!
The first step to good nutrition is simple. Drink more water! You should be drinking at least half your body weight in ounces per day. For a 200 lb. person, that would be 100 ounces, or about 3 liters. This may increase or decrease depending on your level of activity. There are countless studies on the health benefits of water (after all, we are 60% water). Drink it before you’re thirsty and drink it when you think you’re hungry (you might actually just be thirsty). I also highly recommend drinking a cup of water right when you wake up. Your body has been dehydrated all night, making that first glass so important for optimal health.
Eat Your Damn Vegetables
So what’s next? The next step is just as simple: vegetables. Most people do not eat nearly enough vegetables. In fact, I probably eat about eight times as many vegetables per day as the average person. Vegetables have countless health benefits beyond what most people can even imagine. They can help prevent cancer and clear the body of toxins. When I’m talking about vegetables, I’m talking about the leafy green kind. Things like spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, green leaf lettuce, and broccoli. Others include beets, green beans, squash, cauliflower, carrots, etc. Your shopping cart should basically contain all the colors of the rainbow so you can get all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Not included in this category are starchy vegetables, such as potatoes (although these are healthy in a different way).
So how many vegetables should you be eating? In truth, you can eat an unlimited amount since it is really hard to fill up on them. Vegetables are so high in fiber and water that they will fill you up quickly. They are also super low in calories, making them super efficient. You could call them the superheroes of the food world! Realistically, you should aim to fill up half your plate with vegetables at every meal. If you do this one thing, you will be amazed at how much your body will love you (I know mine does).
Protein is Your BFF
Next is our friend protein. Protein is a building block of our muscles and is so important to have, especially when training hard. But, again, most people do not eat enough protein. Lean sources are best to start out with, since you can separate the effects of fat and protein on your body. That does not mean fatty protein is bad for you, but it can be damaging if you don’t get the right type. When buying fatty protein, it is really important to get organic, grass fed varieties. Fat often harbors all sorts of toxins, and cheap meat can be the worst. This is even true of leaner cuts of protein.
Fill a fourth of your plate with protein (about a palm-sized amount) and you will give your muscles the fuel they need to grow. Great lean sources are chicken breast, white fish, egg whites, turkey breast, and steak rounds. Fatty sources include gamy meats (bison, elk, etc.), sardines, salmon, whole eggs, and certain cuts of pork. It is also really hard to overeat protein since it is very filling, making it an important staple of your diet.
Starches and Fats: The Mean Girls
The last two components are starches and fats. These are a bit more difficult, since their recommended consumption depends on how much training and exercise you are doing. You can think of them as your fuel source. The more you exercise, the more carbs and/or fats you will need. The combination is very individual and you have to find the right amount that you need. In fact if you are fairly sedentary you may need very little. Most people overeat starches!
Start with a ¼ portion of whole grain starches at one or two meals. Make sure your starches are whole grain, because they have far more benefits than refined starches. If you are still hungry, add a little bit of healthy fat (a palmful of nuts, half an avocado, a tablespoon of coconut oil, or a tablespoon of olive oil). Good fats can keep you satisfied all day. They are not “unhealthy” as has been the label for years!
Not all starches are created equal! Focus on water-based starches, such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, apples, berries, oranges and beans. These are much more filling than starches like bread, chips, or pasta. Remember: keep it simple! Add more starches and/or fats if you find your energy levels to be low.
This is not an exhaustive list for good nutrition, but it’s a great start. You really have to find what’s right for you. Think of yourself as a diet detective. Start with the baselines I have laid out, and figure out where your body feels best.
Cravings: The Redheaded Step-Sister to Nutrition
Cravings can destroy any good, nutritional habit. How many times have you thought, “I really want that candy bar”? You know it’s bad for you, yet you still crave it. Left unchecked, cravings can cascade into poor eating habits, breaking any healthy habits you formed.
Controlling cravings begins with staying mindful about what you put in your body. Many people eat just to eat: “It’s lunch time, so it’s time to eat.” Keep it simple, and eat when you are actually hungry. There are very healthy people that eat once a day. Figure out if you are hungry or having a craving.
Cravings can be controlled by getting to the root cause of what causes them. Did you have too much wine last night? Did you eat something that upset your stomach? Why do you really want that cake? Really think about what you are putting in your body and how it affects you. Take your time while you are eating and absorb all the flavors. Sit down and eat without any distractions!
Cravings are really tough to control. By being mindful with what you put in your body, you can see where they come from, but sometimes you need to give in for your sanity. Dark chocolate can be a powerful tool for getting through tough cravings. A cheat day once a week can also limit cravings.
If you are healthy 70% of the time, this is better than not at all. One cheat day a week can satisfy your cravings, allowing you to eat better MOST of the time. Find your tolerance. Some people cannot have even one cheat day because the effects cascade. If you need to let loose, go for it!
Remember to enjoy your food. Eating healthy can be fun and fulfilling. Some of the best meals I have eaten have been healthy. I have found some amazing food on my quest for good nutrition. Don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment to find what works!
I hope I was able to simplify nutrition for you. Good nutrition is the most important skill you can add to your utility belt. It will ensure you live a vital and healthy life. When in doubt, stick to natural food sources (one or few ingredients). Remember, abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym. In summary:
- Start with drinking lots of water, especially when you wake up.
- Eat every meal with a significant portion of veggies (half a plate!).
- Make sure at least one quarter of your plate is protein (palm-sized portion).
- Add starches and fats according to your exercise level.
- Eat when you’re hungry.
- Control cravings by figuring out how different foods and activities affect you.
Remember, good nutrition is an incremental process. Changing a lifetime of habits is not easy. You have to walk before you can run, so focus on setting small goals first, and then work on larger ones.
What trouble do you have with eating healthy? Where does nutrition fit into your training plan? Please let me know if you have any questions.