If you ask a hundred different people what “good” or “healthy” eating means, you’ll likely get a hundred different answers! For some, it would mean focusing on eating more protein and less carbohydrates; for others, it would mean cutting back on sugary desserts; increasing fruit and vegetable intake; reducing saturated fats; limiting processed foods…or a countless number of other responses. All of these views have their own merit, but, exclusively making any one of these your sole nutritional focus would be oversimplified and incomplete.
With all of the different options available for nutritional advice, it can certainly get confusing.
- the Zone,
- South Beach,
- juice cleanse,
- herbal remedies,
- strict meal plans,
- calorie counting
- and of course, the Fad Diets that are always available.
SOME of these nutritional options DO work for some people…some of the time. But, for many others, they simply aren’t sustainable in the long-term. Research has shown that the quick fix is not the way to go if you value you the long-term health of your body. The problem with many of these approaches is that they aren’t based around the foundational principles required for a well-rounded nutrition plan.
There are four important criteria that good nutrition must meet:
- Good nutrition properly controls energy balance.
- Good nutrition provides nutrient density.
- Good nutrition achieves heath, body composition, and performance goals.
- Good nutrition is honest and outcome-based.
The phrase “energy balance” represents the relationship between “energy in” (calories taken into the body through food and drink) and “energy out” (calories used in the body for our daily energy requirements). This relationship, defined by the laws of thermodynamics, dictates whether weight is lost, gained, or remains the same.
When adjusting the energy balance in your body, it is best to do so gradually, whether your goal is to lose or gain weight. Energy balance affects everything from your metabolism to your hormonal balance to your mood. A severe negative energy balance has been associated with massive metabolic decline; an inability to concentrate; a reduction in thyroid hormone production, testosterone levels and physical performance. On the other hand, an extreme positive energy balance can lead to sudden weight gain and result in plaque build-up in our arteries; increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels; we can become insulin resistant and begin to suffer from diabetes; and our risk of certain cancers increases.
A good nutrition program will help to properly control energy balance, preventing excessive swings in either direction (positive or negative) and allow the body to either lose fat or gain lean mass in a healthy way.
Nutrient density is the ratio of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibre, etc.) relative to the total calorie content in a food. Therefore, a food with a high nutrient density would contain a large amount of key nutrients (protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins, etc.) per 100 calories of food.
Foods such as lean red meats, salmon, eggs, spinach, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower), oranges, mixed beans, Quinoa, whole oats, avocados and flax seeds are all extremely nutrient dense.
Calorie Density refers to the ratio of calories (which are merely units of potential energy in food) to the actual weight of the food. Therefore, a food with high calorie density would have a lot of calories per 100 g of food, while a food with low calorie density would have few calories per 100 g of food. For example, foods with a lot of fibre and water tend to have lower calorie density. Food which have less water or are higher in fat tend to be higher in calorie density.
EX. OF FOODS WITH HIGH CAL. DENSITY
cookies, crackers, butter, bacon
EX. OF FOODS WITH LOW CAL. DENSITY
fresh vegetables, broth-based soups, fresh fruits, chicken breast
Good nutrition will always provide a diet that is rich in nutrient dense foods. If the primary goals are improving health and promoting fat loss, a diet high in nutrient-dense foods and low in calorie-dense foods would be most beneficial. Conversely, for someone interested in weight gain, high-nutrient-dense + high-calorie-dense would be appropriate. This would allow for increases in both nutrient intake and calorie intake, both essential for gains in lean mass and total body weight.
Health, Body Composition, and Performance Goals
Good nutrition is more than about weight loss or gain, which are just transient indicators of energy balance, since energy balance and weight can change from one day to the next. Therefore, finding a long-term set of dietary habits should be based on the intersection of the following three goals:
- Improved body composition
- Improved health
- Improved performance
With all of the short-term ‘fixes’ available, including powerful drugs, invasive and risky surgeries and ridiculous crash diets, it has become all too common for people to do whatever it takes to achieve their ‘dream body’, while sacrificing their health and well-being. Focusing strictly on any one of these goals to the exclusion of the others can lead to problems. An excessively single-minded focus on “performance” or “weight loss” or “health” might, in some cases, actually produce negative long-term consequences. Good nutrition will take all three of these areas into account and will find a middle-ground where each one can flourish.
Honest and Outcome-Based
Good nutrition equals results. While good nutrition controls energy balance, boosts nutrient intake, and targets heath goals, body composition goals, and performance goals, it also has to be honest about whether it hits the mark.
Is it possible that someone could eat really well and have a “perfect” diet yet be overweight, fatigued, and riddled with lifestyle-related diseases? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not likely.
If you aren’t seeing the type of results that you desire, taking a proactive approach to your nutrition plan is critical. “Outcome-based” means evaluating what you are currently doing and observing if it is yielding results. In an outcome-based world, theory is meaningless and results are everything. Take it one step at a time; identify the main limiting factor in your nutrition and start by making some small small changes that will lead you in the right direction. Focus on consistent progress, rather than perfection.
This blog post references information from Precision Nutrition, the leaders in habit-based nutrition.