With the New Year approaching, you or someone you know will probably be starting some sort of “new diet” or trying to control their nutrition planning. It is important to do some research and find the right facts that will lead you to accomplish your goal. With all the various information circling in the media it’s hard to pin down what exactly good nutrition entails. “What is the best diet? And, “What is your diet?” are questions I get asked quite often. There is no one best diet for everyone, rather the best diet is the one that works best for you. However all good “diets” or good nutrition programs will focus on four key principals.
- Controlling energy balance.
- Focusing on Nutrient Density vs Caloric Density
- Equal focus on Health, Body Composition and Performance
- Outcome based/measurable and sustainable
All good nutrition programs focus on controlling energy balance. In order to lose weight you must be burning more calories than you are consuming, therefore putting yourself into a state of negative energy balance. If you are consuming more calories than you are burning then you are in a positive energy balance.
Sounds pretty simple right?
Well in some ways it is. Staying in a negative energy balance for a prolonged period of time will help you lose weight but it also causes your metabolism to slow and your body to go into starvation mode and hang on to all the energy (fat) it can hang on to. So when you skip a meal your body may be using fat for energy. If you stay in this negative energy balance for a prolonged period of time the less effective it can be for fat loss. A severe negative energy balance also deprives your body of vital nutrients and can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Not to mention when your body is in starvation mode it focuses less on the non-survival functions like the nervous system (brain) and reproductive system (self-explanatory). So you are unable to concentrate and critically think and your libido goes down the drain. On the other side, being in a state of positive energy balance all of the time has its own drawbacks. Overfeeding can lead to insulin resistance, increased blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels and even some cancers. A good nutrition program focuses on a neutral energy balance, over the long run, for optimal health and performance.
What Nutrient Density Is Best?
Nutrient density focuses on the overall quality of the foods we eat. Foods that help us control body composition are generally very nutrient dense (providing a substantial amount of macro and/or micro nutrients) and not very calorically dense (ratio of energy to the weight of the food.)
The bonus: most foods that help us control our body composition are also good for our health!
Spinach, broccoli, salmon, and eggs are all examples of high nutrient and low calorie ratio foods. Its no wonder most of these are listed as power or super foods on most nutrition plans. Things like soda, Oreos, and doughnuts are all high caloric foods that offer little or no benefit in the way of nutrition. This doesn’t make them necessarily bad for you but no one could make the argument that these foods are “good for you.”
As I mentioned above, eating a diet composed primarily of high nutrient density foods will not only reduce your waistline but also provide many health benefits. Foods high in protein will help build muscle. Foods containing good fats will help with improve brain health. Getting more nutrients from whole foods means the systems in your body will get what they need to function properly. Foods high in nutrients also leave you feeling full or satiated for longer periods of time. This makes it easier to not overeat and helps control appetite. Focusing on WHAT you eat can help eliminate calorie counting, because you are only eating foods high in nutrient value. Which can alleviate the psychological stress associated with the traditional form of “calorie counting” and “dieting.”
Health, Body Composition, & Performance
Good nutrition has an equal focus on health, body composition, and performance. This means each aspect is just as important as the other. Many people begin an exercise and nutrition program with the goal of getting a six-pack with little emphasis on the health and performance aspects. Some programs will improve body composition while sacrificing health and performance, but having a single minded focus can lead to negative long term consequences. Such is the case with the severe negative energy balance mentioned earlier.
Someone focused only on body composition may wish to take a “fat burning” supplement not knowing the long term repercussions of this decision. Many times these supplements cause liver or kidney damage as well as strain on the nervous system. More importantly even the supplement companies that sell these supplements recommend taking them in short doses and for a short duration. And once use is stopped the results gained while taking the product are lost.
Another side of the coin would be when someone who is focused soley on athletic performance takes performance enhancing drugs to give them a competitive edge. These drugs would probably also improve body composition but not to the detriment of one’s health, which in turn inhibits long term progress and may lead to health concerns. How you look influences how you feel and move. How you look can also be an indication about the physiological process that are going on inside your body. A good nutrition program should involve strategies to build lean muscle mass, lower body fat, lower blood lipid levels, increase good cholesterol, and reduce the risk of lifestyle disease. People should adopt healthy strategies at their own pace and not look for shortcuts.
Nutrition Program: Measuring Progress
The last principal involves measuring the progress of the nutrition program. A nutrition plan must be outcome based, honest, and sustainable for the individual. This means the program must be results based, and one that you should be able to follow for the long-term, and be able to track and have some form of accountability so you can be honest about what you are tracking.
Most people drastically underestimate the amount of calorie dense foods they eat and overestimate the amount of nutrient dense foods they eat. They only way to know what and how much you are eating is to track what you are putting in your mouth. What gets tracked gets measured, what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets improved. Keeping a journal will hold you accountable and keep you honest. It is important to be completely honest with what you are eating and putting in the journal. This honesty will tell if the plan is working. If your adherence to the plan is high but results are low then the plan needs to change because the plan is not working. Some adjustment must be made to produce the desired outcome. If adherence is low… well then you have no clue if the plan is good and you are just not executing it properly or if the plan does need to be adjusted.
A Good Nutrition Program Will Produce Results
Results are everything. A good nutrition program will produce results. Food journaling doesn’t have to be mandatory all the time. If someone has had unhealthy issues with food in the past they may consider avoiding journaling. However keeping a food journal is the most accurate way to see if your program is producing the results you desire. Lastly a good nutrition program needs to be sustainable. It must produce results consistently over time. The goal and dynamics may change therefore the plan must be adjusted accordingly but the results must be consistently measured and shown over time.