Understanding Proper Nutrition
How Your Diet Affects Your Lifestyle
Everyone knows that exercising and eating well creates the foundation for optimal health and performance. Sometimes, people simply just don’t realize how significant of a role nutrition plays in their results. They don’t have a solid understanding of proper nutrition because it hasn’t been taught to them. Other times, people tend to discard the dramatic effect that it can have on their lifestyles. This is especially true in western societies, where food is readily available but nutritional content is often an afterthought. Think about how many calories are in one meal when you go out to dinner or the fat content in whatever you grab for lunch at a fast food joint. The hard truth is this: A proper diet is more difficult than the exercise portion of a healthy lifestyle, but it is also considerably more important.
There is a phrase that is especially fitting in this context: ‘What you see when you look at someone with a perfect set of abs is 80% diet and 20% exercise.’
It’s all about choice!
Think about how long you are in the gym per day. Usually an hour or so, give or take. While what you do there has an impact on the rest of the day, one hour is only about 4% of your day. Outside of that hour, what you do in the gym only has a ‘minor’ effect on most of the remaining 23 hours compared to how your fuel it.
What you eat impacts you throughout the day. It is something that you have to do multiple times a day and each meal has huge implications on your progress. Like my old wrestling coach used to say, ‘Junk in, Junk out.’ Eating nothing but garbage will give you garbage results.
There is a reason that professional athletes eat relatively clean during the on season. Food is what fuels your body throughout the day, including at the gym. A diet full of junk will not get you far in the gym, nevermind towards your overall goals. Alternatively, if you have a diet rich in natural foods (minimal processing) you will more than likely have far better results in the gym compared to those who rely on junk food.
Case study in nutrition
What we eat can affect our mood, energy levels, and even our workouts. Let’s look at this in a practical sense. Take two different individuals with diets that are complete opposites of one another:
First, we have Bill, a guy who’s a stereotypical couch potato. He often snacks on Cheetos, potato chips, and other sodium-rich, high-fat snack foods after getting home from work. This becomes his routine as he plops himself in front of the TV. After a couple months he begins to realize that no matter how much sleep he gets, he still seems to be in a mental fog all day long. He’s been getting sick more and more often; so much so that he feels like he is sick at least once every week or two.
Compare Bill to John who eats a relatively wholesome diet throughout the week. When he does feel the urge to snack, he makes smarter choices than Bill. He often chooses foods with a better ratio of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, such as Greek yogurt, beef jerky, and fruit. Since John is receiving higher quality nutrients and keeping his calories consistent with his energy expenditure throughout the day, he does not put himself at risk of heart disease, insomnia, or low energy levels. Bill enjoys consistent energy throughout the day, as well as an overall positive mood. He can attribute all these positive outcomes to the fact that he makes smarter food choices throughout the day.
Nutrition plays a significant role in how you recover from your training sessions afterwards as well, which is an often overlooked aspect of health and fitness. Along with proper sleep and hydration, your diet is the primary determinant of just how well you will recover and progress towards your goals.
This begs the question, how can we make sure that our diets are aligned with our training goals? Turns out we just need to remember and understand the fundamentals of nutrition.
‘Processed’ vs ‘Natural’
You might be wondering what this site refers to as ‘clean’ foods. We are referring to those that are minimally processed. Vegetables, fruits, and meats in their ‘natural’ states (or as close as possible) are generally the best choices. Nearly the entirety of these types of foods can be found in what some people like to call the ‘Ring of Life’ at the grocery store. The outer band that rings around the edges of grocery stores. Meats, baked goods,and produce are all found on the outsides of the store. The foods found in the outer ring are, for the most part, all ‘nutrient dense,’ meaning they have a fantastic ratio of nutrients to calories, unlike most processed foods.
When you wander into the inner aisles of the store you begin to find processed goods such as crackers, potato chips, soda’s, etc. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with any of those things, and in fact, when eaten in moderation and combined with other foods, they can help keep the average person from going crazy. They might even help people stay on their diets, *if consumed occasionally.* Processed foods tend to be heavy on carbohydrates and fat while lacking a good proportion of actual nutrients.
Finding out what you need to consume each day, calorie wise, and sticking within those limits will go miles in helping you reach your goals.
Eating too little comes with a whole set of problems. One of the most under reported issues with not getting enough nutrients into your body is that you might not see the scale move a whole lot in the direction you want. When you don’t bring in enough calories to make up for what you used throughout the day, your body will generally start to burn it’s fat deposits for extra fuel. However, your body doesn’t operate strictly in a black and white fashion. If you start hitting 1000 or more calorie deficits (from what you NEED) a day, your body may go into starvation mode. This will turn your body from a fat burning machine into a survival mechanism, slowing your metabolism in an attempt to survive. That survival instinct might even cause you to start GAINING weight when you under eat!
Other negative effects of under eating include:
- Reproductive issues
- Fluctuating blood sugar levels
- Mood swings
- Loss of lean (muscle) mass
Alternatively, eating too much may cause you to feel sluggish, lazy, and tired. Feeling bloated can cause anyone to want to skip the gym in lieu of a nap. Compound that lazy feeling with the inevitable weight gain that comes from over eating and the sense of insecurity that comes with it, and you might just become a hermit; afraid to go out in public and face perceived judgements by others. Vicious cycle. Best not to get caught up in it.
Other negative aspects of over eating include:
- Changes to your circadian (sleep) cycle
- Expanded stomach, needing more and more to feel ‘full’
- Skin issues
- Increased risk of some diseases
If you need help figuring out how much you should be consuming daily, you should start by calculating your TDEE, and then comparing to what you have been eating.
For the sake of simplicity, there are two types of nutrients out there: Micronutrients and Macronutrients.
Micronutrients are things like vitamins and minerals. These are the types of nutrients you gather through food and multivitamins that your body uses for various functions. Examples include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B1/2/3/5/etc.
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
Macronutrients are what your body breaks food down into. The three main macronutrient types out there are:
The average western diet is very carbohydrate heavy, which is bad and can lead to weight gain and a whole host of other health issues. Proper balancing of macro and micro nutrients helps increase focus and maintain balance throughout the body.
Hydration is enormously important to your diet. Often it is an afterthought and one of the most overlooked parts of an all around healthy system. Roughly 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. What does the term ‘chronically dehydrated’ mean and how does it play into diet?
- Slower metabolism
- Cramps and Spasms
- Lack of focus
Proper hydration can boost your body’s ability to remove waste from itself, boost your metabolic rate, and help increase focus and clarity, regardless of what you are doing. Additionally, proper hydration may help with recovery times and sleep cycles.
How much you need to drink each day depends on age, sex, activity levels, etc.
Your Goals Matter
Whether your goal is to gain muscle, lose weight, or be more all around functionally fit, you must make sure that you’re eating the proper amount of calories. The keyword here is ‘enough.’ Obviously, what you need to consume will vary depending on different factors such as goal(s), age, and sex. Whether you’re dieting to lose weight or gain mass, you still have to make sure you’re eating enough calories to reach your goals in a healthy way that maximizes fat loss and maintains (or grows) lean mass.
Lifestyle should be taken into account here. Changing your lifestyle doesn’t have to be quite as dramatic as people believe. Following a proper diet plan will require you to modify your daily routine to some extent, but small steps are easier than cold turkey change all at once. A good first step might be that you do not order an appetizer when attending lunch with your co-workers. Perhaps you begin preparing your meals for the week, to avoid being tempted by poor options such as fast food. Setting reminders on your phone is an excellent way to drink more water. What works for you might not work for others. Find what works and what doesn’t. Stick with it. It will come.
Hard work pays off
The key to understanding proper nutrition is simple: Eat within your caloric needs, while balancing mostly nutrient dense foods with a smaller amount of junk and getting in plenty of water.
It may seem difficult at first, but once you begin understanding proper nutrition and establishing some good habits (the average person takes about 2 months), chances are you will succeed.
Create a plan for your nutrition, make actionable goals, build a habit. You have 24 hours during the day to make food choices. That is, of course, minus the time you are on your body shelf, unconscious. Make sure they are the right ones.