The purpose of this article is not to dissuade anyone from counting calories/macros or undermining their importance. The purpose of this article is to highlight principles, provide a healthy framework, and teach people how to have autonomy with their nutrition.
We know that tracking calories and macronutrients is a great avenue to reach a desired outcome. Doing so, provides quantitative data, structure, accountability, and develops a food frame of reference. While this is certainly a great route for some, it is not the only route— It is simply one tool in the tool box.
We are all unique, and our bodies are all wired differently. What works for me, might not work for you, and vice versa. It’s easy to get caught up in the newest fad diet, the amount of calories so-and-so is eating, and articles telling us to eat “X” amount of calories with virtually no context. You need to eat for YOUR body and lifestyle, not someone else’s. While we can’t always rely on magazines and “fitness influencers” to tell us how to properly eat, we CAN rely on the basic fundamentals of nutrition.
Habits, skills, behaviors, and structure are the foundation of success. Becoming a master of your foundation is much more important than hyperfocusing on numerical goals. While I agree that calories and macronutrients are important, if there is a good system in place, they will be accounted for. I am not against macro counting; It certainly has a time and a place dependent on the individual and their goals. Putting an inexperienced person on a macronutrient based plan is useless and impractical if they don’t know what macros are to begin with. The same goes for the experienced person, who doesn’t want to rely on counting 3 numbers forever, but hasn’t learned the skills to confidently transition away from them. Systems need to be in place to avoid burnout and frustration, allowing us to enjoyably live this lifestyle forever.
Build the foundation by focusing on concepts that actually matter.
Concept 1: Recognizing Hunger Sensations
As previously stated, tracking is a great method that everyone should experience at some point. My concern with tracking long-term, is the possibility of disconnecting from hunger and fullness sensations. These sensations are your body’s way of communicating when it is physically hungry and registering when it has reached satiety. Reliance on numerical targets can actually reduce your ability to recognize these cues. While this is not always the case, it is possible to become so number-focused these sensations are shut out. Maintaining a high level of trust with your body is essential regardless if you’re a beginner or an expert.
In order to build your plan, you must be able to interpret your appetite and respond to those sensations accordingly — Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. Easier said than done though, right? Fortunately, there are some things that we can do to help.
Utilizing a hunger/fullness scale is an excellent tool to quantify hunger levels. I recommend familiarizing yourself with this scale and the characteristics of each level. A good rule of thumb is to not drop below 3 (Hungry) or exceed 6 (Satisfied).
Concept 2: Establish a Meal Schedule
Referring back to the hunger/fullness scale, I advised to avoid letting hunger drop below 3. Reason being, if you feel ravenous or starved, you are more susceptible to overeating or binging when it does come time to eat.
On the flip-side, recognizing when you are satiated is equally as important. Aim to reach 6. Here, you recognize that you are satisfied, no longer hungry, and you do not need to continue eating. Anything above this level, can result in overeating, bloating, and discomfort.
Not only does an eating routine help get the body on a regimen, it also provides structure and consistency. Through my experience, I’ve noticed that a meal schedule decreases snacking and mindless eating. Establish a routine that allows you to eat once you’ve reached true hunger, and stop when you are satisfied. Depending on lifestyle factors, this can vary. There isn’t a right or wrong way to set up your meal schedule (Note: Eating “6 small meals a day” is not magic) Find what works for you and your daily routine.
- Consume 3-5 meals a day (Adjust frequency to help satiety & adherence)
- Don’t let yourself go too hungry — Eat when you’ve reached 3 on Hunger/Fullness Scale
- Stop eating when you’ve reached 6 on Hunger/Fullness Scale
Concept 3: Protein with Each Meal
Each feeding or meal should include a lean protein source. Protein is important to build/maintain muscle mass, increase satiety, drive essential processes in the human body, and much more. Collectively, these functions make protein one of the most important nutrients. Therefore, adequate intake is a high priority for optimal health and to effectively support your goals.
Concept 4: Fruits & Vegetables
The base of your diet should be protein, fruits, and vegetables. You then can fill in the pieces as your body needs. Fruit and vegetables provide the body with necessary micronutrients which are important for various functions and processes within the human body. Generally speaking, I recommend consuming about 4 servings (cups) of fruits and vegetables daily. This will keep fiber intake in check, as well as provide the body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to perform well. Be sure to vary or rotate foods to prevent the development of any nutrient deficiencies. For example, if you always eat an apple with your lunch, try swapping it for something different next week.
Surpringsily, fruit and vegetables intake is an area where many people struggle.
Simple ways to sneak in fruits and vegetables:
- Vegetable omelette
- Add fruit to oatmeal or yogurt
- Add veggies to sandwiches or wraps
- Veggie noodles
At this point, you should have a greater understanding of the structural components to begin creating your nutrition blueprint
- Listen to hunger/fullness cues
- 3-5 Meals/day
- Lean protein with each meal
- 4 Servings of Fruits/Vegetables a day.
Changes and Adjustments — When? How?
There are a handful of metrics that are taken into account when evaluating progress. First things first, do NOT expect instant gratification. It takes time to collect the data needed to make an accurate call. Be patient.
- Body Weight/Appearance
Weight loss and weight gain simply comes down to energy expenditure (Calories In vs. Calories Out). If you are losing weight, you are consuming less than you are expending. If you are gaining weight, you are consuming more than you are expending.
Depending on the goal, nutrition can be adjusted accordingly based on the rate of body weight change. This is where patience is crucial. You need to assess body weight over a period of time. One week is simply just not enough time. Because weight fluctuates day to day, we want to look at averages. Weigh yourself daily. Compare the averages every 4 weeks. This is enough time to see sufficient change.
If the scale moved in the desired direction… Great. Assuming all other variables are in control, no changes need to be made. From here, it is rinse and repeat; Compare Week 1 to Week 4, Week 4 to Week 8, Week 8 to Week 12, and so on.
If the scale did not move in the desired direction, adjustments can then be made. Nutrition adjustments should be small. Examples include increasing/decreasing portion size or adding/eliminating a snack.
Be aware weight might not change much. This does not mean that progress is not being made. During body recomposition, weight can stabilize, but visual changes are present. If you did not lose/gain weight, but you look and feel better… That’s a win. This is why it is equally important to note visual progress. Take progress photos every 4 weeks and use those in combination with the other metrics to evaluate progress.
Factors such as rest, recovery, sleep, and stress have a significant impact on training performance. Assuming these variables are controlled, a significant decrease in training performance could indicate that nutrition needs to be adjusted. You might not be consuming enough energy to support your exercise or you’re not consuming enough before to fuel the workout. Food is fuel. A possible solution is to modify nutrient timing— increase carbohydrate intake before/after training in effort to manage fatigue. Because there are many variables to take into account, I recommend taking notes before, during, and after training sessions to help determine the root cause and lead you to a solution.
Body recomposition will presumably impact hunger/fullness sensations. An increase in muscle mass will likely increase hunger. Stay in tune with your body’s cues. Use alongside other metrics and adjust as necessary while staying in alignment with your goals.
Collectively, you should be able to make judgement calls based on the evaluations of bodyweight/appearance, performance, and hunger. Because there are so many variables and moving parts there is no rule book on how to do things perfectly. Critical thinking is a hell of a skill. It will take some trial and error, but that is part of the learning process. Mistakes lead to lessons. There is no failing— The only way to fail is to give up.
To conclude, nutrition does not need to be as complex as it is made out to be. Don’t overthink it. Commit to learning your body and the systems that help you be successful. Master the basic principles: Acknowledge hunger/fullness sensations, meal frequency, consume lean protein with each feeding, and prioritize fruits and vegetables.
Build the foundation. Be patient. Be consistent.