The world of nutrition is a complicated place. You have people, magazines, books and podcasts telling you hundreds of different things about what you should be eating, what you shouldn’t be eating, when you should be eating, and why you should be eating. There are fad diets and quick fixes that change every year. It can be overwhelming to say the least! Unless you have a very specific goal that is performance or weight driven, then your nutrition does not have to be all that complicated. I do count macros, but that is because I have very specific CrossFit goals and choose to have more precision in my diet, but this is not necessary for everyone. For most people it is very simple - you just want to feel good, be in good health and crush your workouts! With that in mind, if I had to pick one simple piece of nutrition advice that could apply to anyone, it would be: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants". This is advice Ben Bergeron gives in his podcast Simplifying Nutrition and I could not agree with it more. I would actually encourage you to listen to that episode as it has tons of great stuff in it. I will dive into what eating real food means and how you can apply it, and then answer a few nutrition related questions from our members at the end.
The concept of eating real food may sound too simple and vague, but it really isn’t, so let’s talk about what real food is. Real food comes from plants or animals. This includes foods that are in a whole, unprocessed or very minimally processed state, like animal meat, local or grass-fed dairy, eggs, ancient and whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and fruits. Real food is perishable and cannot be stored for long periods of time before spoiling. Real food can be found in the perimeters of the grocery store, at your local butcher, at the farmer’s market or local farmstead, or in your own garden at home. Real food does not have weird ingredient lists. If you cannot identify some of the ingredients on the label, chances are you should not be eating it as a daily staple or a large portion of your diet. The issue with nearly all processed foods is that many of the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients have been stripped away during processing, so you end up missing out on a lot of the health benefits when eating those things. Why are nutrients important? They give us energy, keep us strong, assist in survival, and prevent illness!
So how do you maintain a healthy yet realistic diet, mostly from real food, without giving up everything you love? One of my favorite approaches is the one Alan Aragon discusses in his book The Lean Muscle Diet. In his words, “a quality diet is 80% whole and minimally processed foods you like, 10% whole and minimally processed foods you don’t necessarily like but don’t hate, and 10% pure junky goodness.” Essentially, 90% real and unprocessed foods and 10% of whatever your heart desires. Some other nutrition coaching companies believe in a slightly more flexible 80/20 approach. Either way, you can see the key is to have the majority of your diet coming from real food. What does this balanced approach actually look like? Here is a fun infographic from Carter Good that I think sums it up well from a daily/weekly standpoint: The 80/20 Rule.
It is important to remember that even if a food is considered 'healthy' or 'clean' you can still eat too much of it, so that is why portions also become important! For example, nuts and nut butter are considered a healthy fat, but a small portion goes a long way. Something like 1 ounce of raw nuts (about 14g of fat/126 calories) or 1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter (7-15g of fat/63-135 calories) is about the right portion of fat intake for the average person in a meal. However, if you look at what people are actually eating, it is multiple handfuls of nuts, and heaping tablespoons of peanut butter that run way beyond those portions! This is where a lot of people get stuck and I hear the words, "I don't understand what is wrong. My diet is clean, I eat mostly real food and nothing is changing". Chances are that yes, you are eating the right foods, but maybe not the right amounts! A good way to estimate your portion sizes for each meal is just by using your own hand for reference. We all have hands and they are generally relative to your body size, so it works great when building your plates and deciding how much of each type of food to have. Generally speaking, for each of your 3-4 meals per day, you would want to include a balanced plate with protein (meat, eggs, dairy, or plant based protein) the size of your palm, a starchy carb (grains, potato, fruit) the size of your cupped hand, about a thumb size portion of fat (olive oil, nut butter, avocado, coconut) and the rest in vegetables.
If you can adhere to a 90/10 or even 80/20 approach of "eating real food, not too much, mostly plants", then you should see improvements in both your health and performance; no macro or calorie counting necessary, and no banishing all the foods you love.
Q&A – A random sampling of nutrition questions from our DCF members
1. I've been trying to start a better nutrition path...but I have always failed within a week. Is there a good way to start new and better eating habits for it not to be SO hard?
Absolutely! To me people don't fail diets, diets fail them, and this is because many of them are unsustainable or unrealistic. I think a lot of people look at a change in nutrition as 'All or Nothing': starting over, eliminating everything you love, restriction, eating foods you dislike. Look at it as a lifestyle and habit change and not a temporary 'diet'. You want to be healthy and feel good forever, not just to reach a goal and then revert back to where you started, and continue that pattern indefinitely. A good approach would be to start small by beginning to ADD more nutrient-dense foods that you enjoy into your current diet. Don't remove anything just yet, but start incorporating more real foods, and start paying attention to portion sizes. Begin to look at and understand your meals. Are they complete? Do they all include protein, vegetables, quality carbohydrates and a trace amount of fats? Compare your daily intake to the 80/20 rule. Are you getting in mostly real food each day? Do you cook most of your own meals? Once this is dialed in, THEN you can begin to break things down further based on results, but don't try to do everything at once. Decide in the beginning what your non-negotiables are and what you absolutely do not want to give up, and then make it a point to make trade offs to let go of some foods in order to incorporate more nutrient-dense options. For example, if you love Mexican food maybe you keep homemade corn tortillas in your diet but you eliminate tortilla chips. Maybe you love cereal for breakfast but could start opting for old fashioned oatmeal instead. Or if you are going to a party and know you will want cake and ice cream, you don't also have pizza and beer beforehand and choose a healthier meal instead, to balance it out. Finally, try to be patient. With any change in nutrition there will be ups and downs, there will be plateaus, there will be many trade offs and lots of temptations. Don't give up the second things get hard or go wrong - pick back up and try again.
2. What’s better between low carb/fat options and more natural foods with higher carb/fat content?
I believe in eating as many foods as possible in their most natural state, if you have access to them and they work within your budget, so often this does mean a higher fat content for certain products. The question of which is better depends on your goals. Organic produce, grains, grass fed meat, and dairy will be the freshest and have the least amount of handling and processing if that is your priority. It doesn’t get any better than getting food straight from the source! However, if your priority lies in losing body fat by implementing a lower fat or lower carb diet, then you do have to make certain trade offs here, so decide what is most important for you to keep and what you do not mind giving up. If you love real peanut butter then maybe you start opting for 1 tablespoon instead of 2 each day so you can have that healthy fat, but not overdo it. Maybe you get all your meat locally which generally has high fat content, but you buy the lower fat yogurt and dairy, or use egg whites instead of whole eggs to keep your fat intake lower. When it comes to carbs, most real food is fairly low in carbs as is, with the exception of certain fruits and grains, and even then, those would be important to include in your diet for the variety of nutrient intake – so sacrificing some processed or high sugar carbs to include these natural ones would be the diet trade off here, which to me is a good one to make. Remember the 80/20 rule!
3. How important is it really to eat organic and/or non GMO?
This comes down to personal preference. It is important if you want to avoid pesticides or preservatives that are used to extend the life of a product or any processing that alters it. You can take in more nutrients and less toxins from a product that is organic, according to some studies, and there is less environmental impact. If you can get food sourced and produced locally it is still going to be your best bet in my opinion, organic or not. But in the off season, it is my preference to choose organic when faced with the choice at a grocery store. For some people the cost of organic is tough to make work, so in the end, as long as it is still mostly real food you are buying, that is going to be better than buying something highly processed or from a box.
- Coach Amy Locati