The word ‘diet’ is often met with screwed up faces and a general distain.
This is mostly because it conjures up images of boiled chicken breast, un-dressed salads, and disgusting kale smoothies.
And honestly, if you had no taste buds, social life or problem with eating the same things over and over, such a ‘diet’ would probably prove to be quite effective.
But the funny thing about food is, it’s not just food.
Food is present in our culture and social interactions, and understanding how to enjoy it whilst remaining healthy is a key component of living a happy and long life.
Because yes, saying no to ice cream and wine forever would technically be a good health choice.
But if we’re honest? If we’re calling that healthy, I’d rather just have the ice cream and wine ;).
Why balance is key
Unless you’re planning on stepping on stage in sequined underwear for a physique competition, you can leave the ‘strict’ eating to those who are inclined to do so.
Although, if you’re up for a challenge and fancy a willpower test? going ‘super strict’ for a few weeks can illicit fantastic results.
But forgoing every craving isn’t optimal long-term, as I’m sure your fish & chips desire would agree!
So where’s the balance?
If cakes and sweets make you happy, should you focus on pleasure over health?
The obvious answer is no- mostly due to the fact that a healthier, well balanced diet will actually cause you far greater happiness, contentment and energy than relying on processed junk for fuel.
So, while we’re at it, we should probably discuss what we mean when we say ‘healthy’ food.
General Guidelines for healthy nutrition
(Notice it says ‘guidelines’, not rules; there’s always a little wiggle room, as we’ll discuss a little further on)
1- Try to consume mostly whole, unprocessed foods
A simple way to think about this is; did it run, swim, fly or grow from the ground? If not, it probably doesn’t need to be on your plate too often!
Think vegetables, fruits, legumes, meats and seafood instead of pop tarts, pizza and overly processed deli meats.
The fewer steps and less human interaction a food has gone through to get from the wild to your plate, generally the healthier it’s going to be for you; and by focusing on consuming these items you’ll feel more energised, alert and your physique will reflect your choices.
2- Stay hydrated
Remember when I said these weren’t ‘rules’ per say? Well this one really should be: our bodies are made up of over 60% water, and it’s necessarily for.. well… living.
Did you know a drop in 10-20% of hydration can literally cause comas and death?
Not much right?
And as little as 0.5-1% causes a decrease in performance and cognitive function- ever experienced a kind of ‘brain fog’ day? Most likely that coincided with a day you forgot to stay hydrated.
So, how much water should you be drinking? Ideally 2-4 litres a day, depending upon exertion levels and the climate you’re in- sweating more or feeling thirsty? Drink more!
3- Listen to your hunger and fullness cues
Our body has actually evolved to be pretty darn clever, with a ton of useful features that keep us alive and well.
One such feature is our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues- meaning you’ll be aware of when you want to eat, and when you’re full.
Note however, this works when you’re focused on your meal and eating slowly- it’s a lot easier to not notice you’re full if you’re chowing down whilst catching up on re-runs of The Wire.
The 80/20 Rule
This is my favourite nutrition ‘rule’, because it allows me to eat cake.
Our first guideline is great for ensuring we’re getting in enough micronutrients for our health, and have good sustainable energy levels.
However, eating only natural foods 100% of the time? Sometimes we deserve a treat, right?
Here’s the deal- If you’re eating well 80% or more of the time, an occasional treat isn’t going to ruin your progress.
For example, if your lunch all week has been a salad or homemade chicken and vegetable wrap, and then Friday a colleague brings in cake? One slice isn’t going to undo the great lunch choice you’d made up till that point- and it will help keep you on track again afterwards.
Restricting your foods and always saying no in order to stay on a certain ‘diet’ or within a set of rules isn’t any way to live life- and more often than not it will culminate with you reaching for a king size bag of Doritos and chasing it up with a pack of donuts as a rebellion against your self-imposed restrictions.
Yes, you should eat well most of the time- but don’t be so hard on yourself, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
As a coach I often get asked nutrition advice; here are some of the most common queries:
“I hardly eat, why aren’t I losing weight?”
Remember when I said our body’s had evolved be pretty smart- well this is one such example of that.
You see back when we’d live in caves and didn’t have the luxury of grocery stores, we’d eat when we can- and to avoid us starving if we went long periods of time before killing our next meal, we’d store the excess calories as body fat we can use as fuel.
You see fat takes less energy for our body to hold- so from a survival perspective, it makes more sense to store food as fat and waste our muscle should we drop our calorific intake too low.
In the modern era, that means as you allow your calories to drop below a certain level, you’ll begin to use your muscles for a fuel source, store what you can as fat, and have hugely reduced bodily functions such as digestion and your immune system.
Remember; hunger cues need to be adhered to in order to fuel your body, and you need to be fueling your body in order to lose weight- starving yourself or dropping your intake too low isn’t the answer.
“I need to lose weight, can I buy these ‘Super fat-loss shakes’ and have them instead of meals?”
I’ll refer you to our first guideline point; whole foods, with minimal processing are always preferable to overly manufactured produce.
Can a protein or meal replacement shake play a part in weight loss? Yes- if you don’t have the time to eat a solid meal and your hunger cues are giving you the heads up you need to eat.
But if that is something you’ll need to fall back on, it’s highly advised to make your own ‘Super-shake’, instead of buying a pre-made version that will more often than not be filled with chemicals and sugars.
One such recipe you could blend up and put in a shake bottle for a snack would be frozen blueberries, spinach, almond milk and a scoop of a high quality whey protein powder.
One of the drawbacks of liquid meal is they are digested faster than solid meals, so you’ll find you become hungry again sooner than if you had consumed some meat and vegetables.
So simple answer: no, they aren’t going to magically make you lose weight, but having a home-made one when you can’t get to real meal and your hunger cues are telling you to eat can tide you over to your next whole food dish, and stop you from snacking on ‘less-healthy’ options.
“I don’t eat breakfast; I can’t stomach food in the morning”
A long time ago clever nutritionists were under the impression that frequent, small meals throughout the day would ‘stoke’ your metabolic fire, and result in you losing weight.
It turns out such beliefs are untrue- you’ll burn the same amount of fuel if you eat one 1500 calorie meal, or three 500 calorie ones.
Would it be ideal from a blood sugar and protein absorption perspective to have breakfast first thing in the morning? For most people, yes.
And if you aren’t feeling like solid food, you could try out the ‘Super-shake’ recipe mentioned above.
However, if you really can’t stomach anything first thing in the AM? Well that’s still listening to your hunger cues- if you aren’t hungry, then simply wait later to eat.
Although be sure to drink plenty of water upon waking- skipping breakfast is fine, skipping hydration isn’t.
“I’m a vegan, I don’t get enough protein”
Whilst it’s true, getting protein in is easier on a meat eating diet, it can still be done through purely plant based means.
Beans, legumes and tofus are all great choices to create dishes out of- I recently feel in love with ‘Black Bean spaghetti’, the ingredients are black beans and water, and it boasts 21 grams of protein per serving!
And if you’re really struggling to hit your protein needs, you can always look into vegan shakes, through either a mix, Hemp, or Pea varieties.
Eating doesn’t have to be rocket science
Nor does it have to be stressful. It’s part of our life, and it’s meant to be enjoyed!
Eating whole foods, remaining hydrated and eating when you’re hungry (and stopping when you’re full) takes the confusion out of the process as a starting point.
Oh, and if you’re offered a slice of cake and ‘give in’ a couple of times a week- don’t beat yourself up! It’s all about the balance!