In part one (read HERE), I discussed the importance of a positive relationship with food and how negative thought patterns around guilt, fear and terms like “junk food”, all have a cascade of physiological effects. Your thoughts become reality around your metabolism and how your nutrition affects you, so this is priority 1 if you are struggling with nutrition. No food plan, diet, or style of eating will be effective long term without a positive relationship with food, and a great coach, allied health professional, dietician, psychologist or General Practitioner can help.
Once the relationship is established, the next steps are to prioritise and plan. Having a clear plan, accountability and goals is key to sustainable success. (I will not discuss stress in this article, while very critical to health and nutrition goals, it has been discussed at length in previous articles HERE and HERE and HERE).
Nutritional Priorities – What Should I Target First
- Relationship with food
This has been well established and explained in part one of my article HERE.
- Red Flags and limiting factors
This area includes looking into medical issues that may be blocking your progress including genetics, metabolism or disease factors e.g. Thyroid dysfunction. The population of people affected like this is incredibly small, but worth checking. I have also included in this section, (to save this being 100 pages long), as part of limiting factors, your environment, your schedule, other life commitments and an overall level of activity. By taking time to focus on these factors you can also take advantage of things that you are doing well, play to your strengths and therefore use your existing skill set to help with your progress.
- Deficiencies in key nutrients, vitamins and minerals
What I mean by this, is making sure key chemical components of metabolic function are being consumed. Some all too common missing elements of a good nutritional plan are, low water and protein intake, Vitamin D deficiency, iron deficiency for women, magnesium intake, and omega 3 fatty acid intake. Magnesium for example is an activator of over 300 different enzymes, and participates in many key metabolic processes, such as glycolysis, Krebs cycle, β-oxidation or ion transport across cell membranes (1). Being deficient in 1 little thing like this can have a huge effect on nutrition and overall progression, as it helps improve the effect of insulin for glucose regulation, converts food into energy, meaning we store less body fat. Getting a simple blood test with your GP can measure this.
- Calories in vs calories out
As seen in part 1, the calories in and calories out equation can be quite variable based on emotional and psychological state which has a physical effect on our metabolic processes. Along with this, is the enormous range in how much energy we draw out of the food we eat, and how much we burn from the movement we do. Lean muscle tissue, age, and resting metabolic rate are just initial examples of what differs from one person to the next in the calories out column. Add on top of that how inaccurate the calorie content is on the food labels we see, and this makes it a very confusing space.
Now with that caveat out of the way, the calories in vs calories out balance is very important when it comes to health, particularly for those who want to lose weight, or those who want to put muscle on. So at least having a guideline, or range to be sitting in with your consumption and your activity levels is a big piece of the puzzle.
- Macronutrient breakdown
Once you have your overall intake and output nicely balanced, you can start thinking about how that is split between protein’s, fats and carbohydrates. I am not going to go in to detail on the % splits here, as it is so variable to the individual, and is a whole article on its own, however, ensuring you have adequate protein is the first and foremost priority. The fat and carb make up will come down to things like goals, genetic disposition, activity levels, types of activity as well as enjoyment of the types of things you like to eat. A qualified dietician will be of great assistance to help finesse this component and guide you with matching meals to meet the target intakes.
- Meal timing
The minute differences between eating within the ’30 minute, anabolic window’ after a work-out, eating 7 small meals or 1 huge meal a day, and long fasts, is so unimportant for most of the population, hence the reason it is bottom of the priority’s list. Sure, if you are an athlete looking for that final 1% advantage, or a physique athlete about to step on stage, then it will be a factor to look at, but for most of us, the timing of our meals should be based around finding a sustainable pattern that works for your lifestyle. And on the topic of meal timing, don’t worry if you can’t get your beloved protein shake down within 32 seconds of completing your last rep. It really doesn’t matter as your body will have circulating amino acids anyway to start muscle repair.
Getting to the Plan – Food Diaries and Nutrition Trackers
Are you a client that automatically thinks you need to start a food diary? Or a coach or trainer that is asking for a food diary? Well it’s not a mandatory requirement, and can often be very counterproductive, particularly for those with negative relationships with food. Just going through the process can be a very stressful and harming one. Here are a few dot points to think about when considering food diaries and nutrition trackers:
- They are suitable only for those with a healthy relationship with food – must establish this first
- People underestimate their food intake, and overestimate their activity levels, particular people who are new to exercise or have been chronic dieters. Note: They are not lying, just unaware, it’s a deeply engrained ego protection mechanism
- If there is a good relationship with food, using trackers in early days can be a good education tool to build knowledge base and awareness of what is in the food we eat
- Long term use of food tracker is stressful and ineffective to most
Next Steps – Establish A Base Plan
Mindful eating and establishing a positive relationship with food, avoiding guilt and fear is a must to start, but from there to move forward, and start to achieve tangible results, a clear plan is needed. I will outline brief guidelines on my approach. As the plan varies considerably from person to person, working with a professional is key.
- Establish your goals, and create an emotional link as to why they are meaningful to you.
- Write those goals down, read them again and again, share them with someone to be accountable, such as a coach, loved one or friend – engrain your goals into your mind if they are truly a priority to you. Note: to some this can be stressful and therefore counterproductive.
- Know where you want to get to, then create 1-3 small stepping stone goals to get you on your way.
- These small targets must be achievable 9 out of 10 times. For example, to add a protein source for breakfast, if you can honestly say to yourself “I can do this 9 out of 10 times”, then it will work. If you can’t honestly say that, then find your small stepping stone goal in the right direction where you can say “9 out of 10 times”.
- Be educated and understand plateaus in your progress – when you stop losing weight, getting healthier, putting on more muscle, don’t freak out and think you need to resort to more drastic measures. This is your body learning to maintain, and maintenance is a good thing in reaching your long term goals, this is a win!
- Don’t just follow blindly, things stick long term when you establish a skill. Take cooking classes, research the importance of omega 3’s, understand what chronic inflammation does to your body, learn 3-4 quick and easy healthy dinners you can make no matter how short of time you are.
Once you understand and have worked your way through nutritional priorities and established a basic plan, review your plan every 3-4 weeks. It is a fluid state, there will be learning curves along the way, and wiggle room to find what is going to work for you, for a long term sustainable approach to reaching your goals. I like to use habit and skill forming google docs, that way I can work live with my clients as we go through various stages of forming good habits, which will help them naturally address the above priorities without being overly prescriptive. Below is a screen shot of just one part that I might introduce to someone who feels they struggle with portion control, where different skills, all relating back to the main habit goal, help someone reach a point of autonomy with it. Plans like this are, of course, an individual thing.
In part 3 of this article, I will touch on why most diets fail, and then go into detail on how exercise, and the choices you make around it, influence your nutrition. You can jump to this by clicking HERE.
Written by Co-founder and Head Performance Coach David Smith
- Pasternak, K., Kocot, J., Horecka, A. (2010). “Biochemistry of Magnesium.” Journal of Elementology 3/2010.