By Roland Pankewich
The world of nutritional science is an interesting place to be. For those who are fascinated by all the different permutations of diets and their intended uses; keto, paleo, vegan, carnivore, the list goes on. At the same time, given all those options and the inevitable emotional attachment to said frameworks, swimming in the world of nutrition can be similar to swimming in a piranha-infested pond. The challenge for industry professionals AND health warriors alike is separating fact from opinion. True science from anecdotal dogma. The reality of the situation I think we all must accept is there is NO “one-size-fits-all” approach after we agree that all humans need to obtain macronutrients (calories) from food along with micronutrients (cofactors) and that a healthy diet of these nutrients should be made up of whole foods. How we combine, concoct, and create what we eat MUST come down to what works best for a given individual and where they are in their health journey. I hope the value I can bring in today’s article is to help you understand just HOW to create that for a client or for yourself with some fundamental considerations and principles. Let’s dig in…
I figured the best way to approach this was in guided steps that can be applied to ANY person under ANY situation of; need, desires, preferences, and/or restrictions. This way it allows you to plug in a framework that may be called for a given scenario while incorporating the principles you see here. It should be said that with this I am trying to be objective and while I personally do not align with extreme diets in a sustained manner, if a case can be made for an individual to do so, I try to proceed without dogma because we are all to varying degrees, biochemically unique.
Step 1: WHEN you eat
You might be surprised that I am starting my approach with WHEN rather than WHAT but there is strategy here. Two main things underpin this decision;
- When massively changing dietary habits, eating in a shorter time window is easier to adopt and sustain than changing all the regular items in one’s diet they are accustomed too.
- In the case of a diet for overall health, body composition, and metabolic enhancement, its easier to eat less when you simply allow yourself less time to eat (assuming willpower).
Think about this, humans are the ONLY animals on this planet that give themselves right to eat round the clock! Grocery stores, shelf-stable foods, and refrigeration have given us perpetual harvest season with MOST of what we eat being full of calories and devoid of nutrition. Keeping our bodies hungry ( or hangry!) and in constant search for the nutrition (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber). We need to complete the dietary picture for our internal physiology to turn that food into energy and regulate bodily function. If you simply shorten the eating window from say 12-14hr down to 8hr, you increase your fasting time generously which not only prevents you from over-eating so easily, it also helps put your body back into a healthy catabolic mode which means all that energy that may be stored on the body in the form of adipose tissue can be burned and utilized rather than just sustaining itself and continuing to compromise one’s health. Excessive adipose tissue becomes a metabolically active organ with negative consequences for the body. A simple approach is to eat when the sun is up and shut it down when the sun goes down. Your gut will also appreciate the break from the constant barrage of food it has to thanklessly process for you day-in, day-out. Think about it, it was just the holidays, you all know what your guts had to deal with!
Step 2: WHAT to eat
Here is where we get down to the magic bullet everyone looks for! The foods that shrink belly fat, the foods that increase muscle mass, the foods that…have a really good marketing team behind them. This is the pin to pop that bubble for those who still hope for such things, they DON’T exist! There are however some incredibly nutritionally dense foods out there and the magic is when you eat them often, in appropriate quantities, with complimentary ingredients……good things happen. What someone eats is really about 2 considerations;
- What is best for THEM given their unique circumstances/goals.
- What do they actually enjoy eating.
If you have ever tried to get someone to eat cruciferous vegetables who has hated vegetables their entire life, you might understand why point #2 exists. The full details on this topic are way to long for this paragraph but here is how I approach it in an abbreviated way;
- Start with whole food as close to nature as it can be purchased
- Select items that are as in-season as possible
- Select the highest quality items one is prepared to purchase (organic vs conventional)
- Rotate your proteins and produce on a regular basis
- Avoid foods with known allergens or that provoke sensitivities
- Avoid all processed foods with ingredients you cannot recognize
If you start here, you will be well ahead of the game relative to most because you have some sort of foundation to work off of. Being adventurous is also a good thing as most people eat the same 8-13 foods every week and we need variety not only for interest but to complete a nutritional profile AND to feed our digestive bacteria which also eat EVERYTHING that you do.
Step 3: HOW to eat
Now this doesn’t imply I think you all don’t know how to eat. Instead, this is more of a reminder of all the things we were taught as kids that we forget in the name of convenience. Most people “task” themselves with eating as they do with picking up the dry cleaning. It becomes a to-do item jammed in the day at various times. We look at it as something to get done as quickly as possible to get to our next thing and then, habituate that. I use to eat a full meal between when one client finished their workout and the next was warming up on the treadmill as a personal trainer, and I wondered why I had gut issues when I was younger!
The process of eating should be somewhat sacred because the job isn’t done when the plate is empty. That’s just act one. You then need to DIGEST IT! This is where a lot of people run into issues because life is so busy and they don’t eat mindfully. They are not cooking their food themselves. They eat alone watching something that may evoke an emotional response. All of which tells your body that digestion is not being prioritized. Meal time should be somewhat sacred. The act of making food, the process of mindful chewing and eating slowly. The opportunity to enjoy with others and share the experience. Finally, the chance to rest at the end of your meal allows your body to really complete the job. The ENTIRE REASON we eat is to produce ATP and cellular water so our body’s can sustain themselves, but look at ALL that goes into doing so and doing it well. Each person has a unique opportunity here to optimize the process of eating to their personal desires by giving MORE attention to it and slowing down while being more involved with the process. Whatever that looks like. The best diet not digested is worse than the worst diet completely digested.
As you can see this topic is in many ways more nuanced that our monthly features last year because we are bringing in more of a human factor to the topics in a practical way. This topic has been the subject of thousands of books and will continue to do so as the industry comes up with new takes on old concepts. I will leave you with a final thought from Michael Pollan’s the Omnivore’s Dilemma as my final 2 cents takeaway; “Eat real food, mostly plants” that is all folks. See you next month for sleep fitness!