Please note that as a personal trainer – I am not giving dietary advice – I am simply trying to shift your thinking so that you can make better informed decisions about your own food choices.
The aim of this article is to help you evaluate your food choices in a different way. You are busy – so in a nutshell, here is what I will tell you:
If you want to be healthier and leaner – you need to change your habits, permanently.
Radical plans will elicit changes, but they are often short lived because the underlying bad habits were just put on hold.
A better approach to permanent and positive change is to structure every meal, adding things based on how important they are to keeping you alive! In this order (probably) we need water, micro nutrients, protein, fats, and maybe carbs!
Construct meals or adjust recipes based on that order of priority and be healthier and probably leaner in no time at all.
For a more detailed explanation – read on.
Each time you eat, try structuring what you have by going through this list (1st is most important). I would also go as far as to say eat them in this order too (foodies gasp, I am sure) – but just building up your meal in this way would be good enough.
- Drink water;
- Add plenty of mixed vegetables any way you like them (the non-starchy kind);
- You must add some protein (protein comes from things that had eyes – like fish, meat, eggs). If you are vegan or vegetarian, you will already know your preferred protein sources – add those;
- Put aside 1 piece of fruit or a punnet of berries as a treat at the end;
- Add a little fat, like olive oil, onto the food.
- Question – does that look enough? If it is you can stop there, if not, add some carbs into the empty space on your plate.
If you do this – you have made a nutrient dense meal. Repeat multiple times a day and you will probably be making progress and feeling healthier in no time at all. Do this 90% of the time and you may never look back!
In most articles, including some of mine, the emphasis on food revolves around how much of everything we need and many start with the question of calories or points.
The governments own food pyramid says we need a balance of everything (I support that) and then sets out a formula based on how much of everything you should eat – and that seems to be driven by calories more than anything else (that, I do not support).
Here is a little ditty to discuss at a dinner party:
Your body does not have a calorie counter. You can live for months having too few calories without harm – but you get sick quickly and function poorly if your nutrients are insufficient (this includes making fat loss harder).
You can cut calories but do not reduce nutrients.
Here, I propose a few things to avoid:
- Do not count calories.
- Do not start by removing things from your diet.
- Do not weigh your foods.
- Do not follow ‘new’ diets you hear about from friends or in the media.
What you should do is:
- Get healthier by adding in better foods.
- Fill up on the healthy stuff, leaving less room for poorer choices.
So how do you do this?
A great way, in fact my preferred way of getting people healthier, is to have them build up meals focusing on the big rocks first. Structure each meal based on what you need to stay alive! In order of importance, we have: Air, Water, Micro/Trace Nutrients, Protein, and Fats. Optionally, we have carbohydrates.
Now that is an easy one because unless the zombie apocalypse happened without me knowing about it, if you are reading this you are breathing. Oh and it takes no room on your plate.
There are lots of strategies to breath better but they are out of scope – lets just assume we all have that covered.
What is the next most important resource we need to stay alive?
Yep – other than air, we would die most quickly with no water. A 3% drop in hydration can lead to significant performance loss and we would be lucky to survive more than a few days with no water. So, for me, when restructuring a clients habits, water is very high on the list. Get that right, and move on to the next step. Have water with every meal or if you are better organised – have water between every meal.
We could argue – I don’t think anyone has tested it – but I am going to say that the next most important consideration for our meal are micro and trace nutrients – the hundreds of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that we need for every biological function to work and to stay alive.
Many nutrients (like B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron) are necessary in hundreds of functions and the body is sensitive to non optimal levels, and in some cases does not store them very well either.
We cannot do well in a low nutrient state. Though not immediately life threatening – your health, vitality, energy production, immunity, sleep, and many other functions will be compromised quite quickly and significantly.
You actually don’t need to know about which foods have which nutrients nor how many, all you need to know is that vegetables, for me, are the next most important intake to get on your plate. If you can have 2-3 different types of veg with every meal – you are doing well. Put some quality sea salt on the veg (definitely) and other seasonings you enjoy.
For the record, I have never had someones results negatively affected from eating too much veg.
In my meal building priorities, the next most important nutrient we need to add is protein. Protein is used to detoxify the body, to make the immune system function, to keep your organs working, to keep tendons and ligaments and skin healthy, and yes, to actually keep muscles functioning. Without muscles – we don’t move.
When all of that is taken care of – the body just might use excess protein to grow more muscle fibres!
If you want to change the way you eat for the better – ensure protein makes up the next part of every meal.
More Nutrients – Fruit
Fruits are nutrient packed powerhouses with high amounts of water and fibre. Vegetables are awesome and if you put a gun to my head to chose one or the other, I would select vegetables first (because you can get everything you need from them, with less calories).
Fruits though, make it easier and more pleasant to round out your vitamin, fibre, and mineral intake and so rebuilding your meals from the ground up and adding a piece of fruit (ideally different) at the end of each meal, is a simple and effective tip for a healthier lifestyle.
It is called (as is protein) and essential macro nutrient because, over time, you must ingest some fats to stay alive and healthy. Yes, we have ample stores of fat that can last us a long time (months, probably), but having a balanced intake of all the Omega fats is very important.
You can survive for a while without ingesting much fat – but having some fat from 1-2 sources with each meal (think olive oil, fish, nuts, eggs, dairy) is sensible and easy to do.
You Are Alive!
If you stopped adding to your plate now – you would probably be satiated, hydrated, have all the major nutrients you need, have just enough energy to function well. Done regularly – you will be healthier.
It may not be optimal but it is probably better than most people manage, most meals, most days! Plus – nothing drastic has been done, no measuring was needed, no tricky rules or processes or timing is required and no denial. Get water, veg, protein, fruit, and fat in every meal and worry less about diets, fads, or the ‘latest’ game changing advice from self proclaimed guru’s.
What has not been mentioned, is Carbs or Calories!
As I alluded to at the start, carbohydrates are NOT essential macros – we can break down fats and proteins, if necessary, to get energy and survive without them.
But we should not need to remove carbs completely (in fact, veg and fruit contain carbs anyway, though relatively small amounts).
What I like to do is think about carbs last – they are the final element to go on your plate and in your mouth.
By the time you have ingested all the other elements – you probably won’t want or need anything else, but if you do, eat some carbs (think starchy vegetables like potatoes and pumpkin, pasta, rice, and bread etc.)
But How Much ?
My intention is to change the way you think – structure meals (or even recipes) based on the relative importance of the foods to keeping us alive and functioning well. Initially – just pick amounts that seem right but add them in order and ensure you get some of everything necessary.
It is a start – and a good one. For a lot of people, that is all they need.
Though this was not a fat loss article – if you had 3 meals a day that contained:
- A 500ml glasses of water (along with other drinks in between);
- 3 different vegetables on your plate;
- A portion of protein (I am being deliberately vague);
- A piece of fruit;
- And a little oil or butter on the veg ..
..then you probably have enough to be healthy without adding anything up and you will probably lose fat and should not be too hungry!
Why am I so vague on quantities? Because most people have no idea how much protein to eat and this is a starting point.
When we see how people feel after a week or two and how much they eat with no extra advice – we have a baseline to work from.
If I told some clients how much protein we eventually want them to eat, they would probably freak out. If I put someone on the amount of fibre we think is very healthy – they may find their digestive system feel like it is in trauma because the change was too great.
Yes, eventually we have targets and ideas on what is optimal, but that is not where we start and why I have not mentioned it – that can come in another article.
We know from experience that just ensuring clients have protein with every meal, and letting them chose how much, will increase their daily intake to a better level from day 1.
Once you achieve these meals pretty regularly – I would look at the changes you are seeing with your body, health, weight, energy, digestion etc and then I might start tweaking and tuning it to be more specific.
This is the way I generally work with clients who want to be healthier – we look to include all of these elements first – before we start taking things away. It is an inclusionary approach – not excluding items, drastically cutting energy or demonising foods.
Now, if you are on a fat loss mission – then we are going to have to talk about quantities, eventually. But guess what: we may never reduce the water, the vegetables, the protein, or the fruit quantities – they may even be increased to assist with fat loss!
We may, in time, need to reduce overall energy intake by lowering fat and carb intake, but that is not where we start.
Increasingly, including nutrient dense food that your body needs and adequate hydration to thrive, is a game changer for clients and is the most significant lever we use to get physical changes happening.
Not calories. Not Meal timing. Not banning foods. Not measuring quantities. Not removing food groups. Not alkalising your blood. Not fasting.
Look to add healthy food habits before you remove anything. Feed your body on the essential items it needs, as a priority at every meal (water, vegetables, protein, fruit and a little fat). Without these you get sick and eventually die. Don’t worry (yet) about calories and even keep in your carbs – just have them last and only as many as you need.
This will build a brilliant platform from which you can train hard and achieve amazing things without the need for drastic cuts or fad diets.