Brown rice. Steamed broccoli. Grilled chicken. Tupperware. A longing for sweets. If exercise is the right cross, proper nutrition is the finishing left hook. There's a reason different cars run on different types of fuel, and if you’re putting the wrong fuel into your body, you can’t expect to be running at optimal performance, can you? Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of the word diet. To me, it always carries undertones of impermanence. That’s not to say diets aren’t a great tool for shedding some quick lbs, but the thing about diets are they always end. After you fit into your wedding dress, fly home from that Jamaican getaway, or show that ex what they’re missing, there’s still that pint of mint chip waiting for you in the fridge. At a time where over two thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, what you put into your body is one of the most important choices you make, and one you make countless times every day. As in every aspect of health, there are a multitude of choices to make and information to wade through, but I’m here to help you navigate through all of it and find a sustainable and tasty routine that works for you. So, without further ado, here’s part one of a breakdown of some basic nutritional methods everyone should know.
Counting calories is based on one simple principle: subtraction. It’s all about energy in minus energy out. When counting calories, you take the amount of kilocalories (what you find on the back of your pasta package and known to most as just a calorie), and measure the amount you take in eating and drinking versus the amount you exert exercising, breathing, and just being alive in general. The logic is simple and straightforward: if you take in fewer calories than you exert, you will lose weight. The fun part - it doesn’t matter what you eat! If you eat one Big Mac and one Big Mac only every day for a month, I can very nearly 100% guarantee you will end up weighing less than you did at the beginning of the month (all nutritional deficiencies and life-choice questionings aside). Of course, I would strongly not recommend only eating Big Macs, but when in America, right? All jokes aside, as we all know, it really does matter what you eat, which brings us to the next point, tracking macros.
What’s a macro? Macros, or macronutrients, are broad categories of types of foods required in large amounts by all of us. There are three macros (technically four, but we’ll focus on the first three) - protein, carbohydrates, and fats (plus alcohol to keep us invested). Like counting calories, the purpose of tracking macros is to measure how much of each type of macro we consume every day, and make sure it’s a favorable ratio. For a simple 60/20/20 carbs/protein/fat split, we’d be eating 60% of our total calories from carbs, 20 from protein, and 20 from fat. What your optimal ratio is depends on your personal goals, but for example for weightlifters trying to gain muscle, protein percentage is increased, for those trying to lose weight, carbs and fats are decreased, etc etc. For those interested, MyFitnessPal is a great free website that allows you to input foods and will tell you exactly what macros and even some micronutrients are in the foods you eat every day and keep track of them for you. Again, good news, it still doesn’t matter what foods your macros come from! Chicken protein is counted the same as black bean protein, and cake fat is counted the same as avocado fat. Now, this does lack some nutritional complexity, as the omega-3 fatty acids we find in salmon or unsaturated fat we get from olive oil are much better for us than saturated or trans fats we’ll find in fatty beef and butter or french fries. Regardless, tracking macros and ensuring a favorable balance of protein, carbs, and fats is a very strong foundation to build your nutritional mansion upon. Another positive: you can apply tracking macros to just about any type of dietary restriction, whether you’re vegan, paleo, or just allergic to anything and everything under the sun.
Now to the when of eating. If you’re like me, that when is all the time. While I like to hide my low self-control in thoughts of ‘constant energy intake’ and ‘stable blood sugar levels’, there is in fact a scientific discussion on when the proper time to eat is. Intermittent fasting is a technique that restricts the time you can eat throughout the day. Most often, people intermittently fasting will have around an eight hour window they can eat, say from noon to 8pm, and then fast or only drink water or coffee the remaining 16 hours in the day. Another option is severely limiting food consumption (20-25% of normal amounts) one or two days a week, but I’ll look more at the first option for now. With less time to eat, it follows naturally that we’ll eat fewer meals and snacks, cutting down our calorie consumption. Intermittent fasting, which is mainly used to help with caloric restriction (eating less), “enhances cardiovascular and brain functions and improve[s] several risk factors for coronary artery disease and stroke including a reduction in blood pressure and increased insulin sensitivity” just to start it off, according to The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. They even go so far as saying the effects of IF and CR on the cardiovascular system and brain are similar to those of exercise! There’s a wide array of evidence of the effects this type of regimen has on molecular mechanisms and pathways, resulting in a better aging outcome and less chance of disease later in life as well. Another benefit that negates the constant energy theory - the British Journal of Nutrition found that there hasn’t really been any evidence showing that smaller meals throughout the day result in more energy. There are some tradeoffs, however, as one study found that increased meal frequency resulted in both lower total and ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. In short, IF has the potential for many great and long-lasting benefits, but it may not be for everyone.
While these practices just scratch the surface of the nutritional world, there’s more info coming! Should we eat like cavemen, cut carbs, or all animal products entirely? A side-by-side comparison of different diets is up next, so stay tuned for more nutrition knowledge!