Nutrition 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Nutrition
Bottom Line Up Front: I routinely get asked for basic dietary help or to give someone “a diet”. This post summarizes my current advice for someone asking me for help with their nutrition complete with references and specific recommendations. This is my class entitled Nutrition 101: The Beginner’s Guide to Nutrition.
I find that there are four categories of people when it comes to diet (and exercise analogously):
- Those who don’t know what they are doing and don’t pretend to try to eat well
- Those who think they know what to do and do it with poor results
- Those who actually know what to do and just don’t do it (for a series of bad reasons/excuses)
- Those who know what to do and actually do it
Those in the first category don’t want dietary help although they need it. The fourth category doesn’t really need advice, just maybe tips to make what they do stronger. I would put myself in the fourth category. I have all the info I need and I almost always do it. There are tweaks and strategies with regard to mostly minor things like meal timing, macronutrient adjustments, etc. that can make a minor difference for me. I could be 5% bodyfat if I wanted to, but doing so is unhealthy, anti-social, and painful so I don’t. But I know enough and have enough self-control after 25 years of caring about my diet to do it.
The people in categories two and three is who this post is for. This is where most people who ask for my help are.
Those in category two still think pretzels and bagels are healthy choices. They have no idea what intermittent fasting is. They think more cardio the better. They think fat is bad. They think you HAVE to eat breakfast and eat as many small meals as possible. These people get bad results or less than ideal results. They need to be educated and then sent down the right path.
The people in category three have maybe learned some things over the years, read some good articles, or talked to some smart people. They actually know what they are doing, but the lure of bad food or convenient meals is too much for them to overcome. These people need some but less education. They really need an actionable plan and a lifestyle change to get results.
Are You Bought In?
I used to spend a lot of time giving people what I thought they wanted not what I thought they needed. For example, someone comes to me and goes over how they are having a problem losing a stubborn 20 pounds, they are trying everything, they don’t eat bad, they never eat out, etc. I usually know these people and I know they want quick fixes. I know I can’t recommend major homework because they won’t do it. I end up giving them basic tips and big picture ideas versus a hard plan.
I have now decided I am going to make them buy-in on any future dietary discussions I get in to weed out the pretenders. This article won’t have an easy set of things to do. Know why? Because it isn’t easy. It will require effort and, in the end, if you do it, the effort will be worth it. Do you want to weigh how much you did in high school, but you spent the last 10 years treating your body like an amusement park? Buckle up, sister. Here are the steps to success.
For the purposes of specific recommendations, we will use two example people here:
- A man of average height, 45 years of age, minimal to no regular exercise program, married with older kids, office job who weighs 210 pounds and is 30-40% bodyfat. Wears size 38/40 pants. Wants to weigh 175 and wear 32 inch pants.
- A woman of average height, 30 years of age, married with an infant and toddler, 150 pounds. Lost her ideal figure after the first baby and is further away after the birth of the second. Used to exercise regularly (jog & yoga) but has stopped almost completely due to the kids. Wants to weigh 120 pounds and fit into her clothes from when she was 25 years old.
Step 1: Figure Out What Your Initial Goals Are
Be realistic but develop initial goals that are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based. Like next 90 days or within the next year-type goals. Not to go from 250lbs to six-pack abs. For our male example, getting into 36 inch pants comfortably and weighing around 190 would be awesome to get done in the next 6 months. For our female, dropping 15 pounds (10%) would be huge for motivation and make a noticeable appearance change.
Step 2: Figure Out What You Are Actually Doing
Write down everything you eat and drink for two weeks in a food journal (or keep it logged in an app). Write down when you ate it and how much you ate. More specific the better as it will be hard to figure out how much you ate if you put down “chicken with pasta” for lunch. But do what you can. Also don’t necessarily change your food and drink pattern although it is hard to recommend against a healthier choice. For example, just having to write things down will probably make you more cognizant of what you are eating, so you may eat less or better. This is probably a good problem to have.
Now that you have it written down, start to add it up. There are a lot of places to do this, but we have many phone or web apps that are very easy to use. MyFitnessPal is a big one. I used to use FatSecret many years ago. Here is another post with some good ideas. Now tally up all your calories and macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat). If you are using a paper log, don’t wait to do this at the end of the two weeks. Do it each day or every few days. I would recommend using an app to track it though since it’s so easy and the data are immediately accessible.
Step 3: Get Educated
The best thing to do, by far, is to read a book. This is far far superior to any article or blog post you will read. The downside for the non-committed is the length of time it takes. But there are many books out today what will teach you in a few weeks what it took me years to figure out through trial and error plus reading. I also have some blog posts I wrote that I will refer you to for some quick reads.
I have been recommending Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution or Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint for a few years now. They have both written new books, maybe better, maybe different. I haven’t read either of the new books. I think these two books are both more than enough to educate you on the things I have found as staples of nutrition, even if they were written before 2016. You can find them very inexpensively. Another book I haven’t read but which is by a professional I trust is The Paleo Cure by Chris Kresser.
These are all foundational books, i.e. they are for people in our example situation who are looking for a total one-stop shop of education from the beginning to formulating a diet plan. Picking any one of the three to read would be a good choice. I would rank them right now based on author and date written as 1. Primal Blueprint, 2. Paleo Cure, 3. Paleo Solution. So for both our example people, I’d buy Primal Blueprint and get reading.
Now that you have a baseline book out of the way, here are some other books I would read eventually and in this order to develop a deeper understanding of big picture nutritional concepts:
Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes
Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by by Brian Wansink
Here are some articles from my blog that I recommend. Remember, these are some specific techniques I use or thoughts on nutrition that aren’t meant to replace a complete package like a book.
STEP 4: Do Something
The books you have read will come with plans of action. You have all the information. You just need to put it into practice and care about it. It will require some lifestyle changes. Maybe you can’t enjoy the donuts every Friday in your office for a while. And maybe you have to try to convince your family to tighten up their food because it won’t be easy to make two separate dinners every day. But if you are committed and ready, you will do it. Soon enough it will just become what you do. This isn’t temporary. This is a lifestyle change. Keep that in your mind.
Notice how I didn’t lay out a specific diet for you or just tell you what to eat. I wanted this to serve as a way to teach you to fish instead of give you a fish. We could talk all day about macronutrient ratios or example daily menus or how many calories per day, etc. These are things that are only useful once you are a category 4 person when you know what to do and you do it. Then we can worry all day about how many carbs or whether you should try keto or intermittent fasting or how much protein to gain muscle or what to eat post-workout.
Getting your nutrition dialed in as much more important and much more difficult than exercise. Far too many people are prioritizing their training above their nutrition. Nutrition will be the baseline that supports your exercise and sleep. Treat it as such.
Happy to help with questions as always.