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"What should I Eat?"
As a trainer and health coach for almost a decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals. That question is by far the most commonly asked. Why you ask? Because everyone knows that exercise is only a small part of changing their body’s physique, performance, and overall health.
So what does one eat? Unfortunately the answer to that only leads to more, and more questions…
- How many calories should I eat each day?
- How much protein (fat, carbs) should I eat?
- What kind of proteins are best?
- Should I eat carbs at night? After my workout? Never?
- What do you mean I need to eat fats?!
It seems that proper nutrition is a plethora of questions, often answered with as many “unclear” answers. Making the process of eating healthier so complicated that many people just give-up. Unable to understand what “works” for them.
My goal today isn’t to tell you WHAT to eat. Rather I want you to leave with a better understanding of
- How what you eat affects your body
- What types of foods you should prioritize in your daily diet
- What does an appropriate portion look like
- Steps you can start doing today to eat better and improve your health
PROTEIN’S ROLE IN THE BODY
In the fitness world, we like to think of protein mostly as the building block for bigger, stronger muscles. But there’s more to it than that. Protein is not just for pretty muscles. It’s key for healthy skin, hair, nails, bones, cartilage, and blood. Protein is at work every second of everyday, and it’s in every single cell in the body. Protein is responsible for repairing and and rebuilding the trillions of cells that are broken down through the stresses of exercise, and other daily activities. If we had to prioritize 1 of the 3 macronutrients, Protein takes the trophy.
Unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body doesn’t readily store protein. So chugging down a massive shake, or devouring a 24oz ribeye after that workout won’t necessarily make your muscles swole! The body will use what it needs and can use. What happens with the extra? Well we just don’t rid of it. Excess protein will be converted and stored as FAT. So too much of a good thing is possible here.
WHAT TO EAT FOR PROTEIN?
The most opportune way to get protein is from food. Getting enough, high quality, protein matters if you want to be lean, strong, and fit. High quality protein sources include:
- Fish/seafood – Salmon, tuna, swordfish, halibut, clams, shrimp, mussels
- Animal meats – Lean Beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, bison
- Dairy – Milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs
- Plant sources – Beans, nuts, lentils, tofu, edamame, seeds
- Supplements – Whey or casein protein
When choosing proteins, keep in mind that most come with “extras.” Animal proteins often are accompanied with FAT. And not always the good kind. Many beef, pork, and lamb cuts have relatively high saturated fat content. Some fish and seafood sources come with fat as well, but generally unsaturated fats in the form of Omega fatty acids. Plant-based proteins are often good choices because instead of fat, they usually are also high in fiber. A key “carb” that helps with weight management, and lowering cholesterol. Protein is commonly supplemented with Whey proteins which offer convenience of ease of preparation and portability. Keep in mind though that not EAA (essential amino acids) are available in “Protein supplements” so it’s still vitally important to get most, if not ALL of your protein from WHOLE FOOD protein sources.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU NEED?
While most people don’t really need to increase their protein intake, those who exercise should pay attention to their intake amounts. Remember protein is essential to rebuilding the body. Those who strength train should aim for a little more. A common recommendation is to aim for a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. The real gauge though is how well you recover after each training session or workout and how you are progressing toward your fitness goals. If you are a numbers cruncher though here are simple calculations to follow:
- Men = .85-1.75 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day
- Women = .50-1.25 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day
Just keep in mind that good muscle recovery, and steady progress either gaining lean muscle and/or losing body fat likely means your protein intake is adequate.
WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE VISUALLY?
It seems like in the last decade+ Carbs have become the nutritional devil, so to speak. But like Protein, you need them, too! A common school of thought is that the quality of carbohydrate matters more than the quantity. It’s most accurate to say that they both matter. Quality and quantity depend entirely on your goals.
CARBOHYDRATE’S ROLE IN THE BODY
Carbs matter because they provide the body with glucose, the primary fuel for physical functions. They do this because carbs are made up of sugars which breakdown through various chains to provide energy immediately, or stored for later. There are healthy and unhealthy sources of carbohydrates. The healthy ones provide not just energy, but a variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. The unhealthy ones will provide energy, but also come with the added risk of obesity, diabetes, and disease. Carbohydrates come in a variety of forms, but for us, the most important are:
- Sugars – The simplest form of carbohydrate. Common varieties of sugars found in foods are fructose (fruit sugar,) sucrose (table sugar), and lactose (milk sugar.)
- Fiber – Complex carbohydrates that come in soluble and insoluble varieties. Both are important for digestion and cardiac health.
- Starches – Complex carbohydrates made of many sugars bonded together to create longer “chains.” They are slower to digest and absorb more slowly into the bloodstream than simple sugars.
WHAT CARBS SHOULD YOU BE EATING?
Let’s look at some examples of both healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates.
Healthy Carbohydrates –
- Whole grains like rye, barley, oats, and quinoa
- Green leafy vegetables like lettuce, kale, and spinach
- Veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini
- Fruits like apples, oranges, pears, berries, and melons
- Starches like Brown rice, Wild rice, sweet potatoes, and beets.
Unhealthy Carbohydrates –
- White bread
- Processed foods like chips, crackers, pretzels
- Most sports drinks
These unhealthy carbohydrates should largely be avoided at all times. Only consumed on rare occasions and in small amounts.
HOW MANY CARBS DO YOU NEED?
While most people eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) would benefit from eating less carbs. It’s not entirely true that everyone should be eating less carbs as the media and pop culture would lead you to believe. The answer to this question really comes back to ones goals. If physique is important, and your primary goal is to be leaner, have less body fat then you should aim to keep your carb intake lower. A simple calculation to follow:
- Men/Women = .30-.75 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight each day
On the other hand if you have a goal to build muscle, or improve your strength, or increase your endurance, then your performance will be dependent on getting enough carbs. This can create much more variable of how much is right. The best thing to do is work with a Qualified Nutrition Coach to better understand your specific needs.
As was the case with protein, the best way to determine how much carbs you should be eating is to identify if you’re making steady progress to your goals. Not just physical goals, but performance and health goals as well!
WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE VISUALLY?
First thing to understand “FATS ARE NOT YOUR ENEMY!!” For over 50 years, medical science, the government, and even big pharmaceuticals have been telling us differently. Yet fats are necessary in the human body. So, what are they and what do they do?
FAT’S ROLE IN THE BODY
Fat is an excellent source of energy for the body because it has a high caloric density relative to carbs and protein (9 kcal/gram vs. 4 kcal/gram). Unfortunately, just like excess carbs or protein, it can be stored for use later. Of course it’s that storage part that most of us are constantly fighting with.
Your brain has a million reasons to want fat in your diet. It plays a crucial role in how neurons transmit signals through the brain and nervous system by creating a protective barrier. When healthy these signals travel faster from the brain, which means you’re smarter, faster, and stronger. Okay, that last part might be a stretch, but you get the point.
Fats also are essential for regulating hormones. Hormones like testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, growth hormone (GH), and many others that regulate body functions including reproduction, digestion, temperature, muscle function, sleep, and cell growth.
So NO fat is not an enemy to your body. Your body needs these dietary fats. The kind of fats, and how much you consume is the key.
When it comes to dietary fats, there are 3 “healthy” fats and 2 “harmful” fats. Let’s first review the “good guys.”
3 HEALTHY FATS
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs) – Called essential because the body can’t synthesize them, must be acquired from food. You may have heard too much Omega-6 is bad, and that is possibly true. Research shows it may increase heart disease risk1. Yet you still need both for good health. EFAs are important for brain function, vision, cardiac health, skin and hair health, and fighting inflammation.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) – You can find this in a variety of foods and oils, including avocados, peanut butter, olive oil, and nuts. MUFAs support cell health, and can help keep your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in check.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) – EFAs are included in this family of fats. Found primarily in plant-based foods and oils, they help reduce heart disease risk by improving cholesterol profiles. There’s also some evidence that PUFAs (mainly Omega-3 and -6 EFAs) help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
2 HARMFUL FATS
- Saturated fat – Saturated fat should be consumed less seldom. This type of fat is found primarily in red meat, full-fat dairy, and poultry (dark meat), as well as most animal flesh. Too much in the diet will increase LDL and overall cholesterol levels, greatly increasing one’s risk for heart disease. The one outlier to this happens to be Coconut and coconut oils. Although a saturated fat, the fats in coconuts are MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides) which research has shown to lower risk of CVD and other lifestyle diseases.
- Trans fat – While it’s true that some of this type of fat occurs naturally (very small amounts are in beef, lamb, and butter fat), the most common sources are what you could call “Frankenfoods.” Meaning most are created in an industrial process called hydrogenation, by which hydrogen is added to the fat molecules in liquid vegetable oils. Sounds yummy, right? If you eat fried foods, frozen pizza, margarine, or microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, you’re probably eating trans fats. Even your favorite donut shop is probably using oils with trans fats to fry their donuts. I know….lets take 20sec. of silence to mourn 😭
WHAT TO EAT FOR FAT?
The “Healthy” fats are available in foods like:
- Fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines
- Nuts like almonds, cashews, Brazil Nuts, Walnuts
- Seeds like Chia, Flax, Hemp, Sunflower
- Oils from olives, avocado, coconut, and nuts and seeds listed above
- Supplements like fish and krill oils that are also rich in Omega EFAs.
HOW MUCH FAT DO YOU NEED?
With the popularization of fats in diets thanks to the KETO diet, it can be hard to determine what is right. As always it is dependent on one’s specific goals, body type, and even genetic code. But to give you some direction it’s generally safe to keep your fat intake about 25-30% of your body weight. This can be hard to determine, and easy to over do since fats are over 2x the caloric density of protein and carbs. So using a visualization practice like below can take you a long ways.
WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE VISUALLY?
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