How to make nutrition decisions

Will this supplement help me build muscle? Do I need to cut out grains in order to lose weight? Are all carbs bad? Should I be on a keto diet?

These questions above are a sampling of the things I read and hear on a daily basis throughout Facebook, Instagram, and my email inbox. I get it, too. I get served a seemingly endless supply of emails and social media ads selling me some sort of supplement or dietary lifestyle I just HAVE TO TRY if I'm going to achieve my goals.

Thankfully, it is not that complicated. Here is how to make nutrition decisions - what to value and in what order.

The most important component to body weight is calories.

Your body weight, and whether you are overweight, underweight, or the proper weight, is the number one factor in your overall health and performance. Obesity is linked to many of the "lifestyle" diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 Diabetes which are the main causes of death in our society.

So, when we consider nutrition, we first have to establish the answer to the question of do you need to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight? There are of course many nuances to this question, but starting from this simple question is the right way to begin.

From there, you need to eat in a calorie surplus if you want to gain weight, calorie deficit if you want to lose weight, and at maintenance if you want to maintain weight.

Next, consider your macronutrient split.

Why do we care about macros? Because while calories will make you gain or lose weight, macros are what impact your body composition.

This is where things get a bit more confusing, and where having a coach is extremely helpful. I know, because I work with a coach myself. Yes, I am a licensed nutrition coach through Precision Nutrition. I've also learned the fastest way to frustration is to have to make, adjust, and monitor my own progress. If it's worth getting better at, it is worth having a coach.

Your macronutrients are the grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you eat on a daily basis. There are many variables which impact how many of those you should have. They include:

  • Gender
  • Activity level (how much you move and train)
  • Profession (are you a professional athlete or model who has to look and perform a certain way?)
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Height
  • Food intolerances or allergies
  • Dietary preferences (vegan or vegetarian lifestyle)
  • Goals (gain muscle, lose fat, lose weight, increase energy, improve performance)
  • Body type

The list can continue, but you get it. There's a lot to manage and correctly setting macros is a mix of art and science. After you get calories dialed in, it is then about macros.

Now, you need to consider food quality.

Before we get into this section, it is worth pointing out that 75% of your success is going to be wrapped up in those first two steps. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. You have to be getting that right first, and then you need to hit your macros. For body weight and composition challenges, these are the most important things.

HOWEVER - and it's a big however - you can be in great physical shape from the outside and be a mess internally. You can have a six pack, run a 5:00 mile, and deadlift 500 pounds - and still be pre-diabetic (this is a pretty crazy study if you want to see this in action). This is where food quality comes into play.

Food quality is simply the nutritional value of the food you are eating. The easiest way to think about it is this: a standard Snickers bar is 280 calories. A single serving of almonds served alongside a four ounce chicken breast is 295 calories. Which is better? Obviously we know that the combination of almonds and chicken is much better for us than the Snickers bar. It gets harder when you're trying to chose between whole food options, organic versus conventional, and all the other things which come at you in the grocery store.

Don't over think it. This is where your calories and macronutrients should come from: meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, a little starch - and avoid added sugar. That's it.

Let's talk nutrient timing.

Nutrient timing is a hot topic in the world of athletics, but for the general population it doesn't matter much. It is maybe going to have a 10% impact on your overall results. It may be the last step that helps you lose your final 10 pounds or that list bit of fat that is just hanging on, though, so it is definitely worth understanding,.

Nutrient timing is the choice you make for when you eat your food. The normal way to go about nutrient timing is to eat your carbohydrates as close to your workout as you can. If you're someone who works out in the morning and eats 300 grams of carbohydrates per day, you may try to have a banana before your workout and then a cup, raw, of oatmeal afterward along with some more fruit and potentially some honey, as well. This would give you over 100 grams of carbohydrates stacked right around your workout. The rest of the day you'd focus on lean proteins, healthy fats, and a few complex carbohydrates to fill out the day.

Finally, we come to supplements.

The world of supplements is a dark one to be frank. There is very little regulation, and even less clear scientific research done to prove the effects of supplements. However, there are a few things that have been shown to be effective supplements across the board.

  • Protein - whether it is whey protein isolate or a plant-based protein blend, protein supplements appear to be beneficial for muscle growth, especially for those people who have a hard time hitting recommended protein levels from whole food alone.
  • Beta Alanine - this improves endurance and allows you to go harder, longer. It is one of the ingredients you should look for in a pre-workout.
  • Caffeine - whether you get this from coffee, tea, or a pre-workout (I recommend ISN's RedLeaf Pre-Workout because it doesn't have crap in it, and only has 40 mg of caffeine meaning it will not leave you jittery and your adrenal glands jacked up) doesn't matter. Caffeine allows you to work harder because it actively makes everything feel easier. Pretty incredible.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids - fish oil is the most popular one here, but you can also find vegan friendly options. This keeps inflammation down in your system and is great for overall health.

Here's the thing: until you get your calories in order, consistently hit your macro splits, eat real food, and have some better focus on nutrient timing, your supplements are not going to fix your problems. They supplement a good diet. They do not make a good diet. Big, important difference.

So you know all of these things - and you can find info on all of them for free - why hire a coach?

A coach provides value in two main ways:

  1. Provide accountability. You will think twice about the beer and wings if you know you have to talk about that choice with another human. It does not work to have a robot doing it. It does not work to just enter it in your own application on your phone. You have to know you will address that choice with another human.
  2. See the obvious things you miss. Most of coaching is not pulling out massive pieces of knowledge and showing you some secret way. Imagine this - you're standing in your bathroom looking in the mirror, but you're so close to the mirror looking at your nose that you can't see the rest of your face. Your coach is the third perspective that helps you by seeing the whole picture. The best coaches help you to realize the mistakes you're making on your own, and help to facilitate your own ideas about the best possible fixes to overcome your obstacles.

Everyone should have a coach. Period. Whether that coach is doing nutrition, fitness, therapy, or personal development, you need someone in your life that is calling you on your B.S. and helping you become better.

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