Bottom Line Up Front: The conventional wisdom about nutrition & dieting is inaccurate. It is mixed with confusing principles and backward priorities. Here is how to prioritize properly for dietary success.
Old School (the 90s)
When I was first learning about nutrition in the 1990s from the federal government (fat free, high carb craze) and from bodybuilding magazines (fat free, high carb, high protein craze), there were some immutable principles of nutrition that everyone just “knew.” I found out many years later through decades of trial and error that they were backwards/confusing/stupid.
The primary thing that was utterly backwards was to think about total calories first. No matter what, you HAD to eat a certain amount of calories to lose, gain, or maintain weight. Then you had to think about macronutrients, i.e. how many carbs, protein, and fat you were eating. There wasn’t a lot of talk about food quality. To be fair, if you read the whole former food guide pyramid, it did talk about not choosing sugary foods and eating vegetables and fruit. But the bottom line that everyone believed was that calories were king, fat was bad, and you had eat a lot of protein if you lifted weights.
To summarize, the order of precedence to succeed at dieting was:
1. Stay within your calorie constraints
2. Choose low fat and high carbohydrate choices
3. Limit processed foods, sugar, and cholesterol.
Where We Missed the Boat
First, by talking in terms of total calories, we are assuming incorrectly that all calories are the same. Think about it. If a total number of calories will keep us within our physical limits, they have to be the same at some level or it wouldn’t make sense. Consider the analogy that to graduate from college with a Bachelor’s Degree, you need 128 credit hours. If there was no further qualification, you could take any classes you want and leave with a degree. Of course, all classes aren’t the same and neither are all foods. If you ate 2000 calories of bagels or 2000 calories of chicken and broccoli, do you think your outcome would be the same?
Second, by demonizing a category of foods (fat) and glorifying another (carbohydrates), you leave uneducated people with just enough information to become a danger to themselves. This led to rampant abuse. You can find candy like Swedish Fish with the stamp “Fat Free” on the label as if to promote its healthfulness! Ice cream with less milk fat (good for you) and more sugar (bad for you) became not only not as bad but some people thought it was actually a healthy choice.
Third, by failing to focus on differences between foods that have similar macronutrient profiles, we never taught anyone about quality of food. Think about a steak from a grain-fed cow in a huge animal factory farm versus one from a small farm that uses no hormones, no antibiotics, no grains, and humane treatment. Think about an apple versus Cheerios (mostly carbs, little protein, no fat). Grass-fed butter (high in omega 3 fatty acids & quality fats) versus vegetable oil (highly processed, inflammatory, full of bad omega 6 fatty acids). When you treat all macronutrients the same, you missed the whole difference between different types of foods that on the surface may be similar but have very different effects within the body.
Where You Should Prioritize
My order of precedence when I think about nutrition now is as follows:
1. Eat real food
2. Care about quality
3. Care about macros, timing, and general quantities
4. Care about quantity
These 4 steps work themselves out in practice as the order in which you should modify your eating to achieve desired results. You may never get past number 2 and be perfectly happy with yourself. If you get to step 4, you are down to the last few pounds or percentages of bodyfat. Most people will be best served staying with 1 and 2 only. Let me explain.
1. Eat Real Food. The first thing you should do if you want to look and feel better is eat things that could have been eaten thousands of years ago. This means meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and even some grains and legumes to your personal tolerance. Some Paleo disciples eschew grains, dairy and legumes, but in my opinion they are fine for some people. Best advice is to eliminate them then weeks later reintroduce them and compare results. I eat a lot of dairy but no grains, and almost no legumes. Rice, corn, and beans are far superior to any Lean Cuisine, bowl of breakfast cereal, cracker, or piece of bread. Be clear here, bread is not a real food no matter how many “whole grains” it contains. It is highly processed and refined.
If you just eat real food with a focus on some meat and veggies at each meal with dairy, nuts, and fruit for snacks you will probably make such great progress that you could stop right here and be very happy with how you look, feel and perform. If you want to get better though, keep moving down the chain to #2.
2. Care About Quality. Now that we are eating real food, we can move to caring about differences between real foods. Where is your meat coming from? Large factory farm, full of hormones and antibiotics, fed the crap left over from the corn field? Then you should go find some hormone/antibiotic-free, grass-fed alternatives. Where are your vegetables from? Your fruit? Pesticides? Are you eating Land-o-Lakes butter (bad) or Kerrygold (good)? Are the cashews you are buying roasted in canola oil (not good)? Are you eating lunch meat (processed) when you could be eating a regular piece of meat you cooked yourself?
If you are eating real food with a focus on making better choices of quality, you may now be more than happy. You may want to drop some more fat and/or increase your performance more though. Move to #3 if so.
3. Care About Macros, Timing, and General Quantities. You now are sold on real, quality food but want some more results. Now you can start caring about how many carbs, proteins, and fats you are consuming and when. In general, a broad prescription for most people to start with would be 40% fat, 30% carbs, 30% protein. Adjust from there based on activity types and genetics. If you are a CrossFitter and live in the short, high intense world or a sprinter/power athlete, you may be able to use more carbs to power that glycolytic (carb-fueled) engine. If you are a distance runner, despite what you think, you can decrease carbs and increase fat. Both could do fine with 30% protein. An active woman in her 50s who does no formal exercise could likely eat less protein, more fat, and less carbs. Play with it and see how you look, feel, and perform (Robb Wolf says this all the time and I love it so I repeat it a lot).
You may also do better focusing certain macros at certain times without changing the total amounts. For example, you may want to eat the bulk of your daily carbs (say 150 of 200 total grams) in your post-workout meal. I have found a lot of good results from eating carbohydrates later in the day (refer to Carb Backloading for some ideas). I primarily eat low/no carb until dinner. I have found this a very effective tool. I have also used intermittent fasting, i.e. not eating for a short period of time as well. For example, instead of eating 3 meals at 8 AM, 12 PM, and 5 PM, eat just two larger meals at 12 PM and 5 PM. The idea is to lengthen the time between meals so your body processes and uses body fat better. Some people do day on, day off fasts. There are many, many options, but you can adjust when and what you are eating without adjusting how much to get a different result.
To understand your intake to this level, you still do not need to weigh and measure food in great detail. You may have to write some things down to get an idea how much fat, protein, carbs your typical day has, but it doesn’t mean at each meal, you weigh the meat, put exactly X cups of vegetables with five ounces of cashews and exactly one tablespoon of butter for the rest of your life. You will find that “some” is enough detail for you, i.e. “at breakfast, I have some eggs, some yogurt, and some coffee.” Some days it may be three eggs, some days maybe four. Some days one bowl of yogurt, some days three. Over time, if you are gaining weight when you don’t want to, stick to two eggs, one bowl of yogurt, and a cup of coffee. Usually just not overeating (feeling too full) is enough of a guide to keep my weight where I want it.
If you are eating real, quality foods and are eating certain macro amounts that work for you when they work best for you, the only thing left to do is weigh and measure food to get super nerdy. This is for someone willing to make serious sacrifices for appearance and/or performance.
4. Care About Specific Quantities All The Time. This is the least preferable option as it makes eating neurotic and feel like work (at least to me). I wrote down everything I ate for years. It didn’t matter really because my priorities were backwards. I was too focused on calories, then macronutrients. No focus on quality at all; eating real foods didn’t matter to me. Protein was protein, carbs were carbs. If you are in this phase, you are probably a perfectionist and/or have made such good progress you want to go all the way. As in seeing all of your abs, all of the time kind of thing. For some this won’t be that much of a pain (I did this for a long time and felt like it was totally normal). However, I would not recommend getting into this world unless you are doing some elite competitions or want to achieve a temporary condition (spring break perhaps). I have come to believe that if you can achieve 90% of the results without all the pain that goes into getting near 100%, be happy with the 90%.
In this phase we are getting very specific with each meal. We are dialing in specific details like exact amounts to the gram of certain macronutrients at certain times of the day. You are doing a little science experiment on yourself to find out what gives you the results you want. It takes weighing and measuring food, writing down what and when you eat, how you are sleeping, how you are training, your stress, etc. to give you the full picture. Eliminate variables, do trials and identify what works best. Doesn’t sound fun, does it? Again, for some this is where they will live for a while until it is too hard/not worth it/they get the results they want.
What you should take away from this article is that the way you look at what you put in your mouth may be the difference in avoiding wasted effort and dissatisfying results.
QUESTION: Do you concur with the steps and priorities listed in this post? Post thoughts to comments.