Nutrition is a broad and polarizing topic. There are many ‘camps’. Low carb, slow carb, paleo, ketogenic, low fat, vegetarian, vegan, etc. The promoters of each defend their diet as the path to fat loss, boundless energy, athletic performance, disease prevention and optimal health. It can be challenging to sift through all the nutrition information out there and determine what’s right and wrong. Decision fatigue builds up real quick.
When you find yourself wading through the endless nutrition books, articles, studies, message board flame wars, etc…just remember that context matters. The majority of nutrition books are written for people who need to lose weight and/or reclaim their health from diabetes, heart disease, or metabolic syndrome. For someone with those goals, something like a Whole 30 diet would be outstanding.
However, this site is geared more towards active folks who have a large demand for calories as well as better insulin sensitivity and more metabolically active tissue (muscle) from exercise. If you’re running 40 miles a week, lifting weights regularly, and mountain bike, hike, or cross country ski for fun on your off days, going on a grain and dairy free, low carb Paleo diet would probably be a disaster.
Active, healthy people are lucky in that they simply have more margin for flexibility and margin for error when it comes to diet. Given that, it’s best to keep things simple. The following are the only principles I keep in mind when it comes to nutrition:
- Eat nutrient dense foods with reckless abandon
- Generally match calories to your activity on a given day
- Embrace foods that have been important for health throughout history
- Enjoy some vices
- Avoid the really bad stuff
Principle 1: Eat nutrient dense foods with reckless abandon
For an athlete who’s constantly burning through glucose and fatty acids while breaking down and rebuilding proteins, a constant flow of micro and macronutrients, antioxidants, and other compounds are crucial. Luckily you don’t need a Phd in biochemistry or enough supps to fill a pharmacy to figure to make sure you’re doing things right. As long as you eat a wide variety of real food, everything you need is baked into the cake (figuratively).
Here’s the super simple list to follow. If you’re an athlete, buy these things at the store regularly, cook them in different combinations, and learn to eat them any time of the day. Luckily starches makes veggies taste better, fat makes everything taste better, and meat is delicious. You’re crazy if you think these foods are ‘restrictive’.
- Green Veggies: broccoli, kale, mixed greens, swiss chard, spinach,
- Other Veggies: mushroom, onion, bell peppers, eggplant
- Starches: sweet potatoes, potatoes, taro, yucca, rice, oats, legumes
- Fruits: apples, oranges, kiwi, berries, pit fruits
- Quality Fat: coconut oil, eggs, grass fed butter, ghee, olive oil, avocado, nuts
- Quality Protein: sardines, salmon, oysters, mussels, anchovies, grass fed beef, pastured chicken/pork
Principle 2: Match calories to activity
If you’re super active, missing the mark on your macronutrient and calorie needs on a regular basis will leave you sluggish and drive performance into the tank. Counting calories should never be the goal and is sketchily accurate even when done in lab settings, much less for a regular person. However, it’s useful to know your resting metabolic rate (RMR). You can get this exact number lab tested.
Mine is just a shade under 2,000 calories, meaning if all I did was lie on the couch all day, I would need to eat 2,000 calories to stay in energy balance. Let’s say instead of lying on the couch, I do a 6 mile run, a short lifting/bodyweight circuit, and a total of 18,000 steps in a day and I’m looking at 3,500 calories just to stay in balance. That’s three large meals plus a few snacks sprinkled in.
The most important thing to start with is protein. On the safe side, you should get in 0.8 -1.0 g/lb of lean body mass. For me, that’s anywhere from 140-175g of protein per day. After that, I fill out my calories with nutrient dense fat and carbs. On high activity days, I typically hunt around for more carbs. On lower activity days, quality fats make up more of the calorie balance.
Principle 3: Embrace culturally traditional food
One of the wonderful things about the human body is that we’re very adaptable. Over the course of history, we’ve thrived on a wide variety of diets that centered in varying degrees on seafood, fowl, ruminants, game, roots, tubers, grains, nuts, fermented foods, raw dairy, and more. Some ancestral cultures like the Inuits and Maasai were robust on high fat diets, while more contemporary Kitavans and Okinawans have similar excellent health and longevity from a diet primarily composed of carbohydrates.
What you come to quickly realize is that there’s so much more going on than the simple classifications of macro and micronutrients. This is liberating because it provides a great deal of freedom to explore and experiment with the great cuisines and techniques that developed throughout history. Many of these techniques have been tried and true for health benefits for thousands of years. Just a few of the techniques you can explore are
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, yoghurt, lassi, and pickles are outstanding for gut health
- Slow cooking and stews with animal bones will improve skin, collagen, hair and other health attributes
- Eating nose to tail and finding novel ways to cook non muscle meat provides the body with a wealth of compounds and micronutrients you wouldn’t otherwise consume
To start exploring these ideas further and experiment for yourself in the kitchen, I’d highly recommend the Nourishing Traditions Cookbook from Sally Fallon. For the geeks out there who are interested in a fantastic investigation of ancestral diets and traditions and their implications for health, check out Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
Principle 4: Avoid the really bad stuff
Principle 5: Enjoy yourself
Principle 3: Avoid ‘The Garbage’
Almost as important as knowing the best foods to incorporate into a diet is knowing the worst offenders when it comes to health and performance. Most of these ‘foods’ have been in existence for less than 100 years and they do not react well with the human body, to put it mildly. They contribute to overeating, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation. And of utmost importance for an athlete, they’re devoid of nutrition (the opposite of nutrient density) and are the quintessential ’empty calories’. It’s actually possible to get fatter by eating these foods while also being undernourished.
Explore The Garbage
Nutrition can be a polarizing topic, a lot like religion or what to watch on Netflix. Everyone on the planet has a personal connection to food that’s shaped by their culture, upbringing, the people around them, and their own personal habits and tendencies. I’m a firm believer that there’s no perfect human diet or a perfect combination of macronutrients that work best. We’ve seen time and again that people on a large spectrum of diets such as the higher carb Kitavans or the higher fat Massai can avoid disease and thrive into old age. My own blood markers on a diet that generally resembles Paleo are also outstanding and show no signs of disease.
Regardless of the composition of foods or macronutrients, the common thread we see across a range of healthy diets is a foundation of natural, whole foods. While that’s a no brainer, it’s so much easier said than done just to tell people to ‘eat real food’. Realistically, we have a lot going against us; a historically unprecedented abundance of processed food tailored specifically to tap into cravings for fat and sugar that have been honed for thousands of years by evolution to keep us alive. Add to this the social pressure to indulge these cravings on a regular basis and the fact that habits in general are notoriously hard to break and build and it’s a potent mix that keeps many of us mired in a vicious cycle of poor eating habits.
It’s truly taken me the better part of 7 years of diligent work to ingrain the right habits and get to a place where cravings don’t control me. And this doesn’t mean I never indulge. On the contrary, I think you’re missing out on a huge part of life if you deny yourself some of the best foods and cuisines the world has to offer. I’d be the first one to eat pizza in Italy and street food in southeast Asia or drink beer in Germany and Pisco in Peru. How boring would Anthony Bourdain’s shows be if he never ate or drank anything?
Instead of advocating for any one size fits all diet, I’ll just share three principles below that have been instrumental in building my knowledge of nutrition, improving my habits, and most importantly allowing me to enjoy food and sharing it with others.
I. Learn the Importance of Food Quality
We all know we should be eating more real food and less processed food. Until you truly understand the why’s behind this statement and the implications it has for your health, performance, and longevity, the words won’t have meaning for you. The best way to develop this understanding is to jump into a fully supported, whole foods based program. Thanks to the internet, the connection economy, and some talented entrepreneurs, there are a number of resources available that prioritize food quality through education, accountability, and social connection. These programs aren’t diets. They’re systems that teach you how to eat, make decisions, and build habits that last a lifetime. If you have any doubts whatsoever about your health or the quality of your diet, you should jump in and try one of these programs immediately. You’ve got nothing to lose.
- Creator(s): Melissa & Dallas Hartwig
- Content: Book, Website, Social Network
- Program: 30 days, running beginning to end of each month
- Priorities: Classical Paleo Diet template with a focus on quality fat, quality protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds
- Goals: Blood sugar regulation, hormonal balance, fat loss, sleep improvement, energy improvement, craving reduction
- Highlights: Massive social networking support from users who post recipes, goals, results, challenges, etc
- Creator: Diane Sanfillipo
- Content: Two Books, Website, Podcast, Social Network
- Priorities: Classical Paleo Diet template with a focus on eliminating processed sugar from the diet
- Goals: Blood sugar regulation, hormonal balance, fat loss, sleep improvement, energy improvement, craving reduction
- Highlights: Excellent primer on the insidious nature of sugar in our diet and how a clean break from processed sugar will free you from cravings
II. Develop a Connection with Food
We’ve never been more disconnected from our food than we are in today’s world. On the positive side, the economies of scale in the food industry have had the wonderful benefit of making food production cheaper and more efficient, making the prospect of starvation a thing of the past for most people on earth. The dark side of this coin, however, is a rapidly growing heath crisis that stems from too many of the wrong foods being literally shoved down our throats by large corporations. Michael Pollan pulled back the curtain with the Omnivore’s Dilemma and I’d highly recommend starting there if you haven’t read it.
For most people, it seems to be an out of sight, out of mind situation. The amount of processing and derangement involved in creating products from wheat, corn, soy, industrial seed oils, and dairy is jarring. As is the amount of chemicals used in the growing process of fruits and vegetables and the hormones and antibiotics used in industrial meat production. If you could visit these places on a regular basis and see what was happening with your own eyes, it’s likely your tastes would start to change.
As you start to prioritize food quality in your life from the previous section, take things a step further and go to the source of your food. Go to farmer’s markets, do a ranch tour, and get to know your neighbors who have vegetable gardens. Talking to people who create high quality food is a powerful process. In this way, you humanize it and it takes on a different meaning in your mind. Add to this the fact that you’ve already gained the knowledge of how crucial this type of food is in furthering your health goals and you’ll solidify the habits and decisions to eat from those sources for good.
III. Explore the History of Food