Want to fix a “broken diet” and start eating better? Have you tried and “fallen off the wagon” more times than you can count? Then read on, because there is hope. These powerful and purposeful strategies will improve your eating.
Nutrition “advice” often comes in buzzwords and slogans. We’ve all heard at least one of these:
“Just eat whole foods.”
“Eat more fat and fewer carbs.”
“If it doesn’t run, fly or swim – or it isn’t a green vegetable – don’t eat it.”
It’s easy to simplify healthy eating into a five-second pitch. But sound bites aren’t enough to actually help people fix their eating and get better results.
Slogans don’t get the job done. As a real person, you need patient, careful, empathetic coaching, meaning:
- Listening to your needs and what you want to accomplish.
- Learning how you live.
- Discovering what’s really important to you.
- Working together to create the right nutritional approach for you – a diet that’s personal and unique, based on your goals and lifestyle.
- Observing your progress carefully and correcting course as necessary.
That last point is especially important – because every diet system is going to stop working at some point. No matter how great it seems initially, that diet will break. When it does, the next step is crucial.
I’m not going to give you a set of rules to follow, or even share a specific diet philosophy. Instead, I’m going to share a framework for evaluation.
This way, if you follow a Paleo diet, you can learn to do Paleo better. If you’re a vegan, you can learn to do that better too. And if you’re just getting started with eating healthier, you can start out the right way, without wasting time and energy.
Step 1: Identify and remove nutritional deficiencies
Most people think they need a complete overhaul at first.
“I have to cut out sugar… and dairy… and carbs… and saturated fat. Plus I have to eat more protein… more healthy fats… and more vegetables. Not a lot of fruit, though. I have to start drinking lots of water too. And exercise… maybe a 6 am boot camp… yeah.”
It’s exhausting just thinking about making all these changes, all at once. The reality is that this approach isn’t just difficult; it’s misguided. Why? Because a complete overhaul rarely addresses what’s making most people feel bad in the first place.
Often, people struggle with how they look and feel because their physiology doesn’t work the way it should. This can be hormonal imbalances, but it’s more often dietary deficiency – not getting the right nutrients, in the right amounts, to get the best results.
Dietary deficiencies, therefore, are the first red flag that something’s wrong. (Interestingly, these dietary deficiencies can even contribute to hormonal imbalances.)
Just how common are dietary deficiencies?
The research in this area is quite comprehensive. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that it’s really hard to get all the essential vitamins and minerals from food alone.
This study analyzed 70 athlete diets. Every single diet was deficient in at least three nutrients. Some diets were missing up to fifteen nutrients! The most common deficiencies were iodine, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin E, and calcium.
Another study, also published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, showed that people following one of four popular diet plans (including Atkins, South Beach, and the DASH diet) were also very likely to be micronutrient deficient, particularly in six key micronutrients: vitamin B7, vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine, and molybdenum.
The bottom line is that dietary deficiencies are very common. Chances are, you’ve got one, no matter how good you think your diet is. That’s a problem, because when you’re deficient in key nutrients, your physiology doesn’t work properly. When your body doesn’t work as it should, you feel rotten.
Just how important is this first step?
Energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance, and mood all rely on getting enough of these essential nutrients. When you don’t get them, things break down.
That’s why you can eat “clean”, go Paleo, avoid meat, lower your carbs, or count calories – you can do “everything right” nutritionally – and still feel lousy. Instead, identify your red flags from the very beginning and start eliminating them, one by one. Here are the most common deficiencies:
- Water (low-level dehydration);
- Vitamins and minerals (especially from vegetables and fruits);
- Protein (particularly in women and in men with low appetites);
- Fiber (95% of the population is deficient here); and
- Essential fatty acids (especially omega-3’s).
To find out where you stand, you could get your diet analyzed by a dietitian (this typically costs between $100 and $150). You could also record what you eat each day and enter it into an online diet calculator like the ones at Fitday or Livestrong.com. But in my nutrition coaching practice, I prefer a much simpler approach.
First, I do a quick survey of what you are eating. From there, I help you:
- Eat more of the protein-rich foods you prefer;
- Eat more veggies and fruits rich in the vitamins and minerals you need most;
- Eat more fiber-rich quality carbs;
- Take in more essential and other healthy fats; and
- Drink more hydrating fluids.
Without any other advanced screening or dietary changes, my clients quickly start feeling better, they lose fat and gain lean muscle, and they feel more motivated. Their workouts become easier and better.
Step 2: Adjust food amount and food type
Once you are getting all the raw materials necessary for proper functioning (essential nutrients) you can move on to bigger issues. These include food amount (i.e. calorie intake) and food composition (macronutrient breakdown).
Food amount and calorie counting
In my coaching program I help clients get away from using handbooks, websites, apps, databases, spreadsheets, and math when planning meals. This is because while we all know that total food (calorie) intake matters, I’m just not a fan of counting calories.
To begin with, calorie counting does nothing to help you tune into your own powerful hunger and appetite cues. By learning how to listen to your body, you have better long-term success in healthy eating. Of course, not everyone knows how to do this from the start. It takes a little coaching and some practice.
Calorie counting doesn’t help balance health goals with our natural human enjoyment of food. In the short term, anyone can turn eating into a numerical and robotic exercise – but in the long run, this strategy falls apart.
There’s another big problem with calorie counting: it’s just not all that accurate.
Because of incorrect labeling, laboratory errors, and differences in food quality and preparation, calorie counts on food labels and websites – even those within the USDA’s nutrient databases – can be off by as much as 25%.
Calorie control without counting
I teach my clients a different approach to calorie control, using their own hand as the ultimate, portable measurement tool. For example, a client might begin by eating:
1-2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
1-2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
1-2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at most meals; and
1-2 thumbs of fat dense foods at most meals.
First, I help you see what this looks like in real life – on a plate.
Then, I help you adjust your actual number of portions up or down, especially carbs and fats, depending on your unique body and goals. For example:
Men who want to add mass fast would up their intake to 3 thumbs of fat and/or 3 cupped handful of carbs at each meal.
But men in who want to lose fat might reduce their intake to 1 thumb of fat and 1 cupped handful of carbs at each meal, eaten slowly and mindfully to “80% full.”
Of course, just like any other form of nutrition planning (including detailed calorie counting) this meal template is just a starting point.
You can’t know exactly how your body will respond in advance. Instead, stay flexible and “steer dynamically.” Adjust your portions based on your hunger, fullness, overall activity level, and progress towards your goals.
Start with the basic template and then adjust your portions at any time using outcome-based decision-making, aka: “How’s that working for you?”
In Part 2 of this article to come, I’ll to deeper into food and macronutrient composition, eating for your body type, and carb and calorie cycling.
Note: Content in this article was sourced from How to Fix A Broken Diet: 3 Ways To Get Your Eating On Track by John Berardi, Ph.D. www.precisionnutrition.com
Laurie Kelly is a Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 coach, specializing in exercise and sports-based nutrition coaching. She is also a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, and a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.