Back on Track with Back to Basics: Nutrition Priorities

So, in between bites of cookies and swigs of eggnog, you might already be thinking ahead to January (or perhaps even thinking about strategies to get you through the holidays with your belt holes intact).  If you skip breakfast, does that mean you can go all out at the buffet?  If you have apple cider vinegar every morning, does it neutralize the calories in the apple pie?  What about your great-great-aunt’s schnitzel?  It has PROTEIN, right?  Protein is good! (?)

With the amount and complexity of nutrition information (often confusing and conflicting, too) swirling around on the internet these days, it’s easy to get overloaded and overwhelmed – so much so that you figure you might as well stick to the sticky buns, since it’s hopeless anyway.  I’m here to equip you with some sanity for the season.  I’m leveraging the great work done by Eric Helms of 3-D Muscle Journey to help you get clear on the most important nutrition fundamentals, IN ORDER.  You can see videos 1-5 on Facebook or my weekly Instagram video series.  Read on to dispel fiction from fact when it comes to the fundamentals of eating for your fitness.

Calories

This is the foundation of the pyramid. Despite anything you may have heard to the contrary, calories are still king, whether they come from Twinkies or organic, grass-fed unicorn farts.  A calorie is a unit for measuring energy, in this case the energy stored in the chemical bonds in food and released for your use in your body’s processes, whether that’s sweating it out on the Stairmaster, or snoozing on the sofa (yes, our bodies’ various physiological processes, even at rest, DO require at least a little bit of energy to carry out).

If you ingest more calories from food or drink than your body needs for its energy output that day, you will gain weight. This is true whether you count (or believe in) calories or not. They still exist and they still matter.  “But Lauren, what about the quality of my calories?”  I hate to bust your bubble, but a calorie is a calorie.  Yes, the “quality” will likely impact how you feel and perform and the relative ease you experience while losing weight, but when calories in are kept below calories out, weight loss follows.  This is why people can and do lose weight on so-called “junk food diets.”  Not that I suggest you try this (as per the foregoing, you’re likely not going to feel very good going through your days fueled solely on Twinkies and licorice whips).  But don’t kid yourself that a 500-calorie “super shake” is an okay late night snack compared to 500 calories of cookies just because it’s “healthy.”

What’s a foundational strategy at this level? Consider eating slowly and paying attention to whether you are actually hungry. Try stopping when you are about “80% full,” so comfortable and satisfied but not stuffed.  This can help you naturally regulate your intake to slightly below your body’s output, based on its own appetite cues.

Macros

Short for macronutrients, these are the three major building blocks of food that provide calories: protein, carbohydrates and fat.  The first two supply roughly 4 calories per gram and fat supplies roughly 9 calories per gram.  This isn’t exact science, which is why certain approaches to calorie-counting that ignore hunger cues can be over-rated.  And sure, it’s trendy to track or count your macros, but until you have a handle on ONE number per day, calories, it doesn’t really make sense to shoot for three numbers per day. You could eat a perfectly balanced mix of macros and still miss your goals if the total calories for the day don’t add up. Calories first; macros second.

What’s a foundational strategy at this level? Try getting a palm-sized serving of lean protein at each meal (like chicken, white fish, shrimp, lean steak, 2-3 eggs, tofu or tempeh) and ensure snacks have a protein component, too (cheese strings, hummus, yogurt, etc.).  Protein has the highest satiation rating (read: fullness factor) of all of the macronutrients and yet most women find it’s the smallest source of calories in their eating, often not even meeting minimum recommended guidelines to support muscle preservation for their busy lives because it’s been crowded out by delicious and convenient, highly processed snack foods that are made up mostly of carbohydrates and fat.

Micronutrients

These are your vitamins and minerals. While they don’t provide energy in the form of calories like macronutrients do, they are essential in the proper amounts for functioning of the human body.

Generally, the best way to get adequate and optimal micronutrients is to eat a balanced, varied intake of food with a variety of minimally-processed, whole food choices. This can enhance your mood, well-being, hormonal balance and digestion – all key elements to support weight loss.

However, without a handle on calories and the macronutrients they are coming from, jumping in at this level doesn’t make sense as a starting point for nutrition goals.

What’s a foundational strategy at this level? Consider taking a high-quality, balanced multivitamin to make up for any chances that your diet isn’t quite as varied or full of whole foods as it might optimally be, especially if you are consuming less food to ensure a calorie deficit.

Meal Timing & Frequency

Just like it sounds, this is when and how often you eat. Sounds pretty basic, but this has gotten a lot of hype in the media lately with “intermittent fasting” (IF; also called time-restricted eating or TRE) where you only eat within a specified time window each day. So-called nutrition “experts” are calling for skipping breakfast – but isn’t that the most important meal of the day? Doesn’t it give you a metabolic jump start? There’s more to the discussion than meets the eye!

Technically, you can’t skip breakfast. The first meal you eat after NOT eating (fasting) is breaking your fast and is therefore “breakfast” whether it happens at 6am or 2pm. Semantics aside, it’s really only going to work for fat loss if the calories you consume within your “eating window” are fewer than the calories your body needs for the day. Remember the first level of the pyramid?

Do you really need six small meals per day? Or should we focus on three squares? Again, it depends. Do you feel overwhelmed preparing and eating foods that many times per day? Are you actually even hungry that many times per day? There’s no one answer that works best for every person.

What’s a foundational strategy for this level? Try eating when you’re actually physically hungry; not just because the clock or social cues tell you it’s time to eat. See what type of pattern this causes. Then see how that pattern makes you feel and whether it supports your goals.

Supplements

This is very popular with marketers. Protein powders, BCAA’s, L-carnitine, L-glutamine, powdered unicorn farts (yup, I mentioned unicorns again – do I know something you don’t know?)…where to begin?

If you don’t have a handle on your calories, none of those supplements will magically cause you to lose weight. If you don’t know which foods are primarily sources of fat versus sources of protein, skip the supplements for now.

What’s a foundational strategy for this level? A basic multivitamin (to support your micronutrient needs, aka the third level of the pyramid) or the occasional scoop of whey protein powder to increase your daily protein intake (when you have a handle on the second level of the pyramid) could be a good place to start.

Have questions about nutrition or looking for a nutrition audit of your current approach eating?  I’m always happy to have a complimentary strategy call with you to discuss your goals, your approach and offer immediately actionable advice!

Have a fit (holi)day!

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