By Chere Lucett
Let’s face it: people are individuals. Yes, we share characteristics, but once we get past appearances, our genes make us unique. If this is the case, why do we look for cookie-cutter diets to help us determine our individual nutrition plans? So many people hoping to reach their health and fitness goals search for and implement diet strategies based on another person’s success or failures. There are hundreds of diets and nutritional strategies floating around the Internet and generally speaking people choose the best eating plan based on the testimonials or recommendations of others (not to mention those classic before and after shots). Often we get our advice from the media who sensationalizes the latest study on what we should or shouldn’t be eating. But even science can’t agree on what is best for us. One day, a study on the benefits of caffeine will hit the press and says we should all be drinking coffee. The next day, another study comes out that says “Hold it! Coffee is bad for us!” How can we decide the best eating plan for us? Here are five steps to developing a successful eating plan (in no particular order) without forcing you into a food-choice headlock.
1. Determine Your goals
Some people want to lose weight. Some people want to gain weight. Some people want to gain muscle but keep their current weight. Some people just want to perform better. Which one are you? Maybe you don’t fall neatly into one of the categories listed above, but no matter what your goals are, your nutrition plan needs to reflect your personal objectives and be flexible enough to make room for your lifestyle. If you're looking to lose weight you’ll need a plan that creates a calorie deficit. Experts recommend a deficit of 500 calories a day to help you burn one pound of fat a week (calculation: 3500 calories in one pound of fat; 500 calories a day multiplied by seven days a week = losing one pound a week). That deficit can be from food or a combination of food and exercise (which would be ideal). If you need to gain weight, then the opposite applies. You’ll need to eat more than you burn, but you must understand that when we say “gain weight," we are not recommending “increasing body fat." Instead, we mean increasing muscle while maintaining or decreasing body fat. In this case, you want to take in more calories than expended, but you don’t want to take in too many (in general, a 500 calorie surplus would be recommended). If you are looking to improve performance, the calculations become a little bit trickier and so do your macronutrient requirements (combinations of carbs, fat and protein). In the case of the latter, the first thing you should think about is talking with a registered dietician to provide a run-down of your performance goals and help steer you in the right direction as far as the amount of food you’ll need and the precise macronutrient percentages (Gropper 2012).
2. Adjust to Your Taste Buds
If you don’t like cauliflower, it won’t work in your food plan. You can’t force love (not in life and not in your food choices). Of course you can try, but it either won’t last or it won’t be good for you in the end. One reason “diets” don’t work is because we end up with plans loaded with foods you wouldn’t eat otherwise. Good, whole foods packed with nutrients are out there in excellent varieties so you don’t have to plug your nose and swallow a food you don’t like. Find one you do like and fill your nutrition plan with those foods. Hate fish? Get your omegas from flaxseed oil. Don’t do salads? Grill veggies instead. A war on food may get you to your goal in the short term, but it won’t keep you there.
3. Factor in Your Activity Levels
Your daily activities will also dictate your nutritional needs. The more active you are, the more calories you’ll need to sustain your activity. The less active you are, calorie reduction should be in the plan. In addition, activity levels help determine macronutrient requirements. As noted above, carbs, fats and proteins are important to helping with building muscle, sustaining activity or fueling recovery. When you are creating the optimal food plan for you, it is imperative that you take these factors into account. When it comes to fueling your activities and reaching your personal health and fitness goals, what you eat matters just as much as how much you eat.
4. Eat the Real Thing
Like friendships, when it comes to food, you want the real thing. You won’t accept a friend who won’t be there for you or support you. So why are you choosing foods packed with chemicals you can’t even pronounce? Real, whole foods have simple ingredients, have not been touched by anything trying to make them different or been injected with anything to make them last longer. They also take more energy to break down in your digestive system (Barr 2010). Real foods support mental cognition; they energise you and support a healthy metabolism. There are some caveats to avoiding “processed foods”. Frozen strawberries, by definition, would be processed; however, I doubt you would put Velveeta cheese and a frozen strawberry in the same category. Avoiding highly processed foods is the key to a solid nutrition plan. Frozen veggies and fruits, without any additives, are perfectly fine. Strawberry jam and butter crackers? Well, they should stay out of your shopping cart and pantry.
5. Make it Adaptable
Yes, the good old “give it a try.” If you like it, if it makes you feel good, energised, happy and content, you are on the right track. If you feel sluggish, gassy, crabby, depressed, and your friends have been avoiding you, drop it like a bad habit. You won’t know what works for you until you integrate it into your nutrition plan. Do you feel better on a low-carb plan? You can’t know that for sure until you give it a try. And we’re not talking about trying a something new for one meal and then making a decision. Give a food plan several days to understand its effects on you. And do your best to avoid harsh ups and downs. Being too lax one day and too strict another can mess up your overall plans. Whatever nutritional plan you choose, be consistent! According to the National Weight Registry, consistency is key to maintaining your weight—whatever weight you are trying to accomplish (Gorin 2004)! The most important factor in creating a successful eating plan is you. Sidestepping the low-carb, low-fat debate, it is entirely possible that some people thrive on one food plan while others can’t make it past lunch trying to follow it. That’s okay because your genes determine you, and chances are they will be the best determinant of how you react to different macronutrient levels and calorie budgets. Find a plan that works for you and most importantly fuels your life, your brain and your happiness. That’s the ultimate litmus test of a great nutritional plan.
Barr, S.B. & Wright, J.C. (2010). Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: Implications for daily energy expenditure. Food Nutrition Research, 2,54. Ganguli, T. (2015). Bacon-wrapped chicken? Texans' J.J. Watt eats around 9,000 calories to fuel. ESPN Fan Nation. Retrieved from: http://espn.go.com/blog/houston-texans/post/_/id/12059/bacon-wrapped-chicken-texans-jj-watt-eats-up-to-9000-calories-to-fuel
Gorin, A.A., Phelan, S., Wing, R.R., & Hill, J.O. (2004). Promoting long-term weight control: Does dieting consistency matter? International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 28(2),278-281.
Gropper, S., & Smith, J. (2012) Advanced nutrition and human metabolism(6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Mead, N.M. (2007). Nutrigenomics: The genome–food interface. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(12), A582–A589.