Last week we discussed the six areas in which we’ll need to focus in order to be optimally healthy:
- Stress Management
To kick off our exploration of each of these a bit further, let’s start with food.
There’s something that you need to know about most diet advice out there.
It absolutely sucks.
As a matter of fact, I’d venture to say that most of the advice out there is specifically what’s holding many people back from actually reaching their health and fitness goals.
Here are six ways that we’ve already explored in some capacity in which conventional nutrition advice seems to miss the mark:
- Avoiding animal products
- Minimizing saturated fat and/or cholesterol
- Prioritizing “heart healthy whole grains”
- Practicing “moderation”
- Counting – and deliberately restricting – calories (not quite as in depth as the others to which I’ve linked).
- Looking for “the best diet”
Basically, all we’ve done so far is discuss things that I’ve tried in the past that I’ve found to not quite deliver as promised.
While there are plenty of other misled strategies I’ve used in the past that I intend to write about, nobody wants to be “that guy” (or gal) who only points out problems without offering any solutions.
So, in this post we’ll discuss a few habits that – when practiced consistently – might help you get on your merry way towards improving how you look, feel, and perform.
Oh, and don’t overlook the word “consistently” in the previous sentence.
Following “pretty good” eating habits consistently will get you infinitely further than following “perfect” eating habits inconsistently.
Without further ado, here you go:
1. Eat with intention.
When we set aside time to eat – free from distraction, slowly chewing and enjoying our food, and stopping when we’re satisfied rather than stuffed – eating an amount appropriate to our health and fitness goals becomes much easier.
We allow our bodies to relax, register satiety signals, and better digest our food.
2. Drink plain water.
Dehydration can contribute to a variety of problems – including fatigue, constipation, brain fog, dry skin, cramps, and poor performance.
Staying properly hydrated is often one of the simplest, most effective way to improve all of these factors, as well as support digestion, detoxification, concentration, and that promote that overall “feel good” factor (super technical term, I know…)
Drinking plain water – not juices, smoothies, beer, wine, butter coffees, fancy-ass lattes, milk, or milk alternatives all day – can be an effective strategy for avoiding liquid calories (which our bodies don’t recognize the same as solid calories) and kicking any sweet tooth with which we may be struggling.
Plain, black coffee, and unsweetened tea generally aren’t an issue, either, depending on your caffeine tolerance.
3. Prioritize protein.
The amino acids we get from protein are ridiculously important for maintaining muscle mass, skin, tendons, organs, neurotransmitters, hormones, and various enzymes.
Not only that, but protein is the most satiating of the three macronutrients, and can help ensure that weight lost is from fat while weight gained or maintained is lean mass (muscles and organs).
Not all protein is created equal, though, as animal sources – pastured and wild beef, chicken, fish, eggs, wild game, etc. – provide higher quality amino acid profiles as well as many vitamins (esp. organs) than most plant sources of protein.
You might start with 1-2 palm-sized servings with every meal, for a total of 4-8 servings per day.
4. Eat a variety of veggies.
Non-starchy, leafy, colorful veggies – spinach, broccoli, pepper, cauliflower, kale, chard, and bell peppers, for example – provide water, vitamins, minerals, colorful phytochemicals, and fiber, all of which contribute to our health in a variety of ways.
You might also think of veggies as a good tool for managing hunger, since the higher water and fiber content relative to caloric content can help keep us full, similar to protein.
A good place to start might be aiming for at least 6 fist-sized servings per day, distributed amongst meals however you’d like.
There’s no real upper limit here, although you might feel best – in terms of hunger and digestive comfort – with a higher or lower veggie intake.
5. Use carbs strategically.
Technically, you could consider non-starchy veggies to be “carbs”, but I’m referring to starchy and sugary carbs here.
Carbs serve primarily as a source of fuel that, compared to fats, are utilized quickly and are great for supporting high-intensity activity.
Starchy carbs, in particular, can also serve to promote parasympathetic – “rest and digest” – nervous system activity.
For a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this post, some of us function better with lower carb intake while others of us function better with higher carb intake.
A good place to get started figuring this out is to first focus on the quality of your carbs while aiming for a “middle ground” in terms of quantity.
Swap out nutrient-poor carb sources like grains, bread, pasta, chips, and other baked goods for more nutrient-dense sources like fruit, berries, tubers, and root vegetables.
You might start with two to three cupped-handfuls of carbs before heavy training to promote performance, after heavy training to promote recovery, and/or with your last meal of the day to promote restful sleep.
6. Fill in the gaps with healthy fats.
Fats are critical for building cell walls, synthesizing hormones, and regulating inflammation.
Fats you might want to prioritize are those like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, whole nuts, and pastured animal meats and dairy (depending on your tolerance).
Fats you might want to avoid are vegetable oils, seed oils, shortening, margarine, trans fats, or other highly processed industrial oils that may promote issues like inflammation and insulin sensitivity.
Aiming for at least 3-4 thumb-sized servings a day may be a good bet to cover your minimum requirements.
Otherwise, you might think of fat intake as reciprocating carb intake, within the context of overall energy needs.
That is, you might include a thumb-sized serving or two of healthy fats to complement the protein and veggies at times when carbs aren’t included for performance, recovery, sleep, or personal preference.
Putting this all in action
At this point, you might be reading all of this, thinking:
“Hell yeah, self. You’re pretty close to nailing all of these.”
If so, that’s awesome.
Or you may be reading all of this, thinking:
“Crap. I’m missing the mark, big-time.”
If so, that’s totally cool, too.
If you’re moving towards your goals, it doesn’t really matter which of these camps you fall into.
You might as well keep on doing your thing.
If, however, you’re not moving towards your goals, you might start to look at your own eating habits and see if there are any areas in which you might benefit from a little tinkering.
If you do decide to take action, keep in mind that even though baby steps aren’t as exciting as drastic changes, they are often (admittedly not always) more sustainable.
You might have the most luck picking just one of these habits, practicing it until it becomes automatic, picking another habit, and then repeating the process until you’ve got things down.
Also, keep in mind that I’m not a doctor, dietitian, wizard, or guru – I can’t tell you exactly how or what to eat in order to be optimally healthy, but can only share with you what I’ve learned and what I’ve found has worked for me and some of the folks I’ve helped thus far.
Finally, some experimentation and adjustment is always necessary with respect to the habits described above – these are only suggested starting points.
We’ll cover some of the other six pillars of health and fitness in future posts, but for now you might take a look at the list above and ask yourself where you might be missing the mark a bit.
Until then, have a most excellent day!