There is so much information available surrounding diet and so many strategies for so many different outcomes it can become overwhelming trying to establish good eating habits. Many of us will put our heads in the sand and slowly but surely over the years see our waistline expand and our performance drop off!
Where is the best place to start? Assuming your goals are to have a healthy diet, perform optimally and look good naked (these seem to be most people's general goals), should you count macros? Should you look for quality, whole foods? Should you follow an exclusion diet (Keto, Vegan etc)?
In this article I aim to suggest a simple strategy that will allow you to focus on the big ticket items before you worry about diving into the nuances of the nutrition world.
Quantity or Quality?
Both matter a great deal. There is validity to both sides of this argument, and what works will largely come down to someone's personality and compliance with a protocol. Both approaches can have great success.
In order to lose fat your body will have to start using stored fat mass for energy. This will only happen when there is a shortage of calories from food - hence the argument for quantity being the only important factor in creating a caloric deficit.
However, if you want to lose fat and maintain that deficit, you are going to need to battle hunger! So food choices become a factor - when you select foods that are nutrient dense, but not caloric dense, you are going to have an easier time avoiding the late night snacking. Foods that fill you up but do not pack in calories tend to come from higher quality sources (meats, vegetables etc).
Many low quality, processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, making portion control very difficult.
Lastly, our bodies interact with food very differently on a cellular level in the gut depending on food quality. If your gut is getting repeatedly damaged by the food you eat, then there are consequences - one of which is the inability to manage cravings and appetite.
So what first then?
I would suggest starting with prioritising food quality. Establish an understanding of how to select good foods that you have access to and can afford.
Begin with real/whole foods
Eat ingredients (meats, vegetables) as opposed to packaged foods with lists of ingredients on them
Once you establish a foundation of good quality foods you may find that you are looking and feeling better and you may not need to go any further than this!
However it isn't always that simple and many people can not get access to the right foods all the time and eating good quality foods is not possible or affordable. Even with the best food, it can be difficult to establish self awareness around portion control.
When Quality does not complete the job
This brings in the next phase. We introduce quantity - starting with an emphasis on getting adequate protein. Protein has the power to control appetite and is an essential building block of our bodies most important tissues. Prioritising protein can have a big impact on energy, appetite control and muscle mass.
Make protein the centrepiece of your meals. Ensure each meal has a protein source (meat, dairy, legumes etc). In a traditional western diet, protein is often missing from breakfast dishes and very minimal at lunch time (think cereals, toast, sandwiches etc). Try switching out these foods for higher protein options - eggs, high protein yoghurt, leftovers etc.
Once you have a good foundation with quality foods and adequate protein supply you may well find yourself looking and feeling much better! But for many this is not where they want to stop their nutrition journey.
Where Calories come in
The total calories we consume is a product of the total Protein, Carbs and Fat grams in our diet. So a calorie calculation will require identifying how much of each macronutrient you are eating. If we look at these numbers via a tracking application (e.g. My Fitness Pal) we can start to build awareness of how much food we need to eat to reach our goals.
The actual proportion of carbs and fats is not important at this stage. Simply hitting the appropriate number of calories and the right amount of protein will have you a lot of the way towards optimising your diet.
Here is an example:
An 80kg male might have calculated they require 2500 Calories per day. They could eat 150grams of protein (600 Cal - nearly 2 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight - a typical prescription for an active adult) and the remaining 1900 calories could be any combination of carbs or fats
The Hierarchy at this point:
In order to calculate your recommended calories and macro splits there are any number of calculators online. My Fitness Pal is the most popular app and the one you will probably use to track your calories so I would suggest starting with that.
A quick recap:
Learn and establish good food quality practices: know how to choose the best food quality option in any scenario you find yourself in (not just your normal weekday routines). If you can nail this 90% of the time and you want more from your nutrition then move to point 2.
Make Protein the main focus of each meal: learn what an optimal amount of protein is for your body and then learn to measure it in some way - hand portion method or a tracking app. If you can get this consistently and want a more dialled in approach then move onto point 3.
Track everything you eat and drink: without exception for at least 7 days (longer if you like the challenge). This is less about trying to hit certain macros and more around bringing awareness to your eating habits - what you eat/drink and how much. Once you do this for a minimum of 7 days you move to point 4.
Check the numbers: Using a macro calculator, get an estimation of what your daily calorie intake should be in order to hit the goal you select. When you select your macro preferences aim for a moderate protein and carbohydrates (at least initially) as this will make it easier to construct meals. Compare these numbers to your previous 7 days. Are you hitting those numbers?
This is as far as this article will go. For most people hitting the gym a couple of times per week and balancing family, work and social engagements this is more than enough. If you can get steps 1 & 2 done consistently then you should see great improvement in how you feel, perform and look.
Check out the audio discussion around this article.