How many calories do I need each day? Is fructose bad? Apples have fructose--are they bad? Carbs equal sugar, and sugar will make me fat, right? Is it true that whey protein causes a huge insulin spike? Doesn't insulin cause weight gain? What about that butter/coconut oil coffee stuff? Will that make me bulletproof? Is it better to eat broccoli or brussels sprouts? I think I heard brussels sprouts have too many carbs--is that true? Should I have eggs or yogurt for breakfast? How much protein do I need? Is cheese OK? What is so magical about chia seeds? Or is it flax seeds? I heard too much protein will destroy my kidneys. Is coffee OK if I am dieting? Bacon is paleo, right? Does that mean it's good for me? Does ice cream have gluten in it? Are gluten free waffles healthier than regular? What's the deal with diet soda? Is aspartame OK? Stevia? Can I eat after 6PM? Will BCAAs help me make more gains? If I take creatine, should I take it before or after I workout?
Some of these may sound over the top, but maybe you can relate to the person asking these questions. Maybe you DO have these questions. Or maybe you're just thinking about that random kid in Home Alone with all the questions.
Look, we've ALL been there. You want to be healthy. You know that nutrition is a huge part of being healthy. You cautiously navigate to your Google search bar with a seemingly straightforward and reasonable question, and the next thing you know you're sucked down into a swirling vortex of information overload.
"HEEEEEEllllllpppp!" your scream fades as you spin deeper into a tortuous, torturous rabbit hole of nutrition blogs and forums leading you to self-doubt, confusion, and frustration. When you finally escape, you're exhausted, overwhelmed, and decide to start your healthy eating on Monday.
You want in on a secret? The answer to most of those questions? It doesn't matter. It just, truly, doesn't matter. Big picture nutrition matters a whole heck of a lot, but most details are extraneous.
Is that oversimplified? Sure. But assuming you are not in the <1% of the population planning on setting any powerlifting world records or winning a figure competition, you're better off sticking to a few basic principles and habits. If you find yourself debating the merits of white potatoes vs. sweet potatoes, I can assure you that you'd be better off just eating either one and going for a walk. You'll save time and be less stressed! Win, win!
Don't get me wrong, I personally love the details and think reading science journals, books, and articles is a fun and engaging way to spend free time. Maybe you do, too! And there certainly are cases for which you need/want to focus on the details.
But for most people in most situations? Don't sweat it. Getting overwhelmed by the details is far more deleterious to your health than any individual detail will be. A detail that might get you an extra 0.001 health points (to put the rather nebulous concept of "health" into more concrete terms) will cost you dearly by way of wasted time or energy or by preventing you from taking any positive action at all. How many times have you stopped frozen in your tracks, overwhelmed by the potential to choose the "wrong" whole grain bread (is it more important to maximize fiber or minimize carbs/sugar?) or a tomato sauce with too much sodium or the cage free eggs instead of the free range eggs? How many times have you gotten so flustered trying to count calories or macros that you threw your stir fry ingredients into the trash and ordered takeout?
Now, it's easy to say not to get caught up in unnecessary details, but how do you know what's unnecessary? In practice, sifting the wheat from the chaff when it comes to nutrition information is easier said than done, especially if you do not want to spend hours researching and reading. This is a great place to enlist the help of someone who DOES enjoy spending hours researching and reading! A coach can be invaluable in helping you identify the critical few principles that truly matter when it comes to nutrition, giving you the confidence to relax and forget about the trivial many. Better results, less stress, less wasted time and energy.
So, in short, go find yourself a trustworthy nutrition coach to get you going!
In the meantime, though, I'll give you five basic principles/areas to focus on, as well as five common pitfall areas that are almost definitely not worth stressing over.
Things on which to spend your time and energy:
1. Choosing/establishing a plan that you can honestly be consistent with today, not tomorrow or Monday or in January.
The "pretty good" plan that you follow consistently gets you far better results than the super awesome extreme gold medal plan that you do for a week and then abandon. Be realistic. Maybe you will be in a different place with different responsibilities and time commitments down the road, but that hypothetical future does not affect what you are willing and able to do RIGHT NOW. By "plan" I mean the constellation of behaviors and habits relating to your intake: grocery shopping, cooking, packing up lunches and snacks, carrying a water bottle, navigating restaurant menus, etc. You can continue to work on developing good habits in the future, but decide on a starting place and commit to nailing that down consistently rather than overextending yourself and being inconsistent.
2. Managing your total intake (i.e., total calories).
Now, before you roll your eyes thinking that I am suggesting everyone download myfitnesspal and start counting calories (which is absolutely NOT what I am suggesting), I want to be very clear that different people will benefit from different strategies in controlling total intake. Some thrive on structure, such as counting macros or following templates. Others do not have the patience to weigh or measure anything, or they know that doing so will lead to a ton of anxiety or unhealthy behaviors. If you fall into either category, that is 100% fine! Don't weigh or measure! It is just one strategy, and it is absolutely not necessary. There are intuitive portion control methods that can be very effective (Precision Nutrition does a great job delineating this option, which includes strategies like using your hand as a measuring tool and eating to 80% satiety at each meal). The most important thing is to choose the method that you are highly confident that you can follow with excellent consistency. Be honest with yourself—there is no right and wrong here! But eating not too little and not too much is one of the most important actions you can take to maximize both health and performance long-term.
3. Prioritizing quality protein at all meals and snacks.
You want to consume quality protein every few hours to maximize muscle retention (and to help with muscle building, if that is one of your goals). This is important whether you are seeking fat loss, muscle gain, or simply greater strength or athletic performance. Your body is always striking a balance between muscle breakdown (catabolism) and muscle building (anabolism), and regular consumption of protein helps shift the equation away from muscle breakdown for the hours following consumption. Muscle is awesome for many reasons, including boosting resting metabolic rate, meaning you are burning more calories just existing when you have more rather than less muscle mass. What are quality protein sources? Your best options are eggs, lean meats, dairy, and whey protein. Aim for a minimum of 20g (or one palm-size worth) of protein at each meal. And, no, nut butters, hummus, and bacon are not significant protein sources. Sorry!
4. Eating primarily whole foods, including lots of vegetables.
Buy most of your groceries from the perimeter of the store, and try to stick mostly to items that come without nutrition facts labels. Whole foods generally contain more nutrition and are more satiating than processed options like a box of cereal. Hate veggies? They don't need to be bland and boring. Pick your favorites, find a few good recipes, and just cycle through those. No need to over-complicate. It's amazing what some garlic and salt does to roasted broccoli!
5. Fostering a healthy relationship with food.
This means fully enjoying your food. Appreciating it for what it allows you to do. Allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite meals without guilt or shame. Not letting emotion or morality getting involved. And practicing awareness and mindfulness when it comes to when and where and how much you eat. Keeping a food journal can be very helpful in bringing awareness and intention to your eating habits.
Things on which NOT to spend your time and energy:
1. (Most) supplements.
There are a few basics that most people will benefit from (like protein, vitamin D, magnesium, fish oil, a multivitamin). But there is little-to-no evidence suggesting a benefit from many other supplements, barring exceptional cases. More often than not, you're just wasting your money. Is beta-alanine for you? Green tea extract? Maybe, but I'm willing to bet you'd get more bang for your buck buying higher quality food, getting more sleep, or just being more consistent in getting to the gym. If your diet, training, and recovery are not already dialed in, you're wasting your money with a ton of supplements. Supplements are (surprise!) meant to be supplemental to an already solid diet, and they should not be a Band-Aid to correct bad habits, like chronic sleep deprivation.
2. Minor food variations.
Almond butter vs. peanut butter. White rice vs. brown rice. Brussels sprouts vs. spinach. PB Cup vs. Newbury Blueberry post-workout shake. If you like white rice and hate brown rice, eat white rice! In the grand scheme of an overall diet, this makes little to no practical difference. If you love brussels sprouts and hate spinach, eat the sprouts! Just eat your veggies!
3. Nutrient timing (for most people).
There is research indicating benefits to partitioning your intake across the day, with most of your carbs consumed around your workouts, most of your fats eaten far away from your carbs, and protein spread evenly throughout the day. You'll recover faster and (may) perform better. But for most people, especially people working out fewer than two times a day, the impacts of nutrient timing are minimal. Eat quality foods at times that work for you.
Is it paleo? Is it "bulletproof"? Is it low carb? Is it a "breakfast" food or a "dinner" food? Worrying if a certain food is "allowed" on some plan or another is an overly restrictive, typically counterproductive and stress-inducing approach. Are you seeing results and feeling good? That's all that matters. Labels do not.
5. Creating fancy or elaborate home-cooked meals.
If you hate to cook, then keep it simple! Streamline your food prep as much as you can. Master a few simple cooking skills. Buy pre-chopped fruits and veggies. Buy just a few key seasonings. Prep proteins, veggies, and starches/grains in bulk and then combine in different permutations over the week. Don't have time to prep food in advance? A healthy meal can be as simple as a sweet potato roasted in the oven, 1-2 cups of frozen broccoli steamed in the microwave, and your protein of choice baked in the oven along with the potato or thrown on the grill. If you want takeout, consider healthier options, like the Whole Foods salad bar.
- When trying to improve your eating habits, it's easy to be overwhelmed by details. The truth? Most of the nitty gritty details have insignificant impacts on health, body composition, or performance.
- Instead of getting confused, frustrated, and promising to kick off your healthy eating "on Monday," work with a coach to identify the critical few nutritional guidelines that truly matter. Then let the trivial many details fall to the wayside where they belong!
- As in most areas of life, focus on a few big rocks will get you farther in your healthy eating endeavors than spreading your time and energy thin over many different priorities and goals. Streamline your nutrition and see better results!