This is a general nutrition framework that I send to all my clients who want to talk nutrition with me. My goal is to provide an outline and some concepts to ensure that we are starting on the same page. A framework to live by for a balanced diet and a healthy relationship with food (which includes throwing the framework out the window every once and a while).
Expectations vs. Reality
“Eat salad for every meal, and cut out carbs entirely” said no balanced nutritionist/dietitian ever. But I swear, that’s not much of an exaggeration of what people think I’m going to tell them when they ask me for diet advice. I think the general perception is that a nutritionist or dietitian will begin your nutrition education in the same way that every Nutrition 101 course begins: by talking to you about calories, macronutrients, portion sizes. The counseling session will wrap up neatly into a Cooking Light recipe book, eventually leading into a discussion of specific “healthy” food choices, a grocery list filled with fancy fresh herbs, produce items, and supplements, followed by a barrage of recipes (that no real person has time to make). And everyone loves the good old “Eat THIS not that” dichotomy, right? Which one is better for me: almond butter, cashew butter, or peanut butter?
NOOOO. Stop it. The least I can hope for is that most nutritionists & dietitians have phased out the archaic black & white mindset that places foods into categories of “good” vs. “bad.” (I don’t even believe in ranking foods strictly according to nutrient content as if food choices exist in a vacuum where cost, taste, culture, and environment don’t matter at all…) I don’t want to begin my nutrition discussions with lessons of the chemical make-up and energy content of foods (macronutrients and calories). Yes, yes. That’s fascinating. To me. Because I studied agriculture, food, and nutrition. I’m a huge nerd. BUT just because that’s how I learned about nutrition in academia does not mean that this is how we should teach healthy eating in the context of daily living. So, that leads me back to the task at hand…
I present to you… A Nutrition Framework for your Life, starring the “Pick 3/4” Checklist and the 7 diet concepts aka Beads of Wisdom: volume, portions, meal timing, calorie & nutrient density, availability, familiarity, and variety.
The “Pick 3/4” Checklist
Let’s face it, as much as you plan ahead, we can always expect some snacks and meals to happen on the fly. As you stare into your fridge, pace in front of your office snack stash, or zone out at the to-go foods at Starbucks… use these 4 bullets as the foundations when building your meal. Ask yourself, does this choice or combination of foods have at least 3 of the following:
- healthy fat*
- fiber/whole grain
- fruit or vegetable
Ideally, you can hit all of these in each meal or snack.
For example, a banana with peanut butter has some protein & healthy fats in the peanut butter (let’s not count the macros, we’ve only just met), and the banana is a fruit with some good micronutrients (and together, these foods give 1/5 of your daily dietary fiber minimum).
*What is a healthy fat? With all this talk about coconut oil not being healthy…(1,2) what should you believe? Fatty foods and oils that I personally use and recommend for use on a daily basis include olive oil, avocados, nut butters (peanut butter, tahini, almond butter), and hummus. Less regularly, I use cheese, butter, sesame, coconut and canola oil. The kinds of fats and oils YOU use will depend on cultural/ethnic preferences and cooking methods. More on that in a later blog post.
Once you get the hang of it, this checklist becomes second nature. For a meal, baked salmon with brown rice and sautéed vegetables would hit all 4 of these. Even if you wanted to go “low carb” and eliminate the rice, the sautéed vegetables would have a good amount of fiber to satisfy that requirement. However, I want to emphasize that I am a proponent of carbohydrates (whole grains) for fiber and volume and some nutrients. Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat (pasta, bread), quinoa, barley, oats, etc. can be awesome additions to your diet. Don’t demonize “carbs,” and don’t fall for the myth perpetuated in current diet plans that say the only “carbs” you can eat are sweet potatoes.
Rolling the Fad Diet Formula into 7 Beads of “Diet” Wisdom
Let’s talk about the consistent concepts that can be identified in all diet trends from Whole 30 to Paleo to Weight Watchers to SlimFast. This will give us some variables to play with to figure out what works best for you. I have adapted the following framework from the “Five Food Instincts” from the book The “I” Diet by Dr. Susan Roberts. Every single fad weight loss diet uses one or more of these principles, in an exaggerated, dogmatic, restrictive or unbalanced way. However, I named this framework the “7 beads of diet wisdom” to juxtapose the “fad diet formula” which sounds pretty lame. I really don’t want anyone following any type of nutrition advice that has “fad diet” in the name.
(Side note: Everyone is seriously hating on the word “diet” right now. Honestly, I don’t hate that word because my graduate research focused on “sustainable diets” and diet advice at a population level. A diet is simply the general combination of foods that a group of people eats and how that shifts over time. It doesn’t have to connote restriction. Don’t get all flustered about the D word, ok? But also, everyone needs to stop saying that they’re “going on a diet.” According to nutrition research, everyone is already associated with a diet, whether they announce it or not.)
For fat & weight loss, our goal is to stave off feelings of hunger and restriction throughout the day so that 1) you are not miserable and 2) so that these feelings don’t lead you to make unhealthy choices when you start craving something. News flash: Staving off hunger DOES NOT mean eating as little as possible and distracting yourself so you don’t feel your stomach pains and crankiness.
In the paragraphs below, I will describe how volume, portions, meal timing, calorie & nutrient density, availability, familiarity, and variety can help you to work toward and maintain a balanced diet and a healthy relationship with food. Understanding these 7 concepts, figuring out which ones are best for you, and learning how to apply them throughout your day will help you to maintain a healthy diet that is sustainable for the long run.
Volume & Satiety
Focus on satiating your stomach with volume by eating more lean protein, high fiber, nutrient dense, & watery foods. I’m not talking the kind of volume that comes from shoving your mouth full of addictive Doritos and ice cream.
- Fresh fruits & vegetables have good water and fiber content. During snacks and meals, they keep your mouth occupied and crunching along until your stomach feels full. They are nutrient dense, not calorie dense, so your body has access to a ton of nourishing micro- and phytonutrients without an overabundance of calories.
- High fiber foods like whole grains, cereals, and beans help you feel full. They also contribute to a healthy digestive tract, keeping things moving smoothly along. Just make sure you’re drinking enough water so that fiber can do its job!
- Eating leaner proteins like ground turkey, baked fish, tofu, etc. also keeps you satisfied for longer. Protein is digested more slowly and doesn’t create a blood sugar spike that can lead to a sudden energy low like processed carbohydrates do.
- Believe it or not, the fat content of your food also works to help you feel satisfied. Fats slow down movement through your GI tract to help you feel fuller longer. This is why healthy fat is a part of my 3/4 Checklist above. However, fat isn’t “voluminous” in the same way that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains add bulk to our diet. In fact, fats are calorie dense, which we will talk about in a later concept.
Get to know the portion sizes that you typically eat.
- You can measure your foods using measuring cups or scales… Or you can use your dish ware and serving utensils to ensure consistency of portions.
- Portions can vary from person to person, and it’s not always in direct relation to their size (or gender), activity, or metabolic rate. Some people like to eat small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. Others can lose weight by eating fewer, slightly larger meals and/or skipping meals. We’ll get to this next when we talk about meal timing.
- Understanding portions can be a good tool down the line IF we begin tracking calories and/or nutrient value of the foods you’re eating (emphasis on the if, not when). Even if you never log and tally your calories, altering portion sizes is an important part of transforming your body composition. You need to know what portions you typically eat in order to increase or decrease!
Breakfast, lunch, dinner… post-workout snack, pre-workout snack… pre-dinner snack, mid-morning snack… no snacks… intermittent fasting… no eating after 7pm… these ideas are all a part of meal timing.
- If you think limiting snacking and reducing your eating window might be helpful for you, you can select a time in the evening where you vow to stop eating (post 8pm, perhaps) and/or tell yourself that you will only have 3 solid meals with no snacks in between. These are all ways to limit your eating window to reduce calorie consumption.
- However, you may find that you need to increase your snacks (thereby increasing your eating window) to help you feel satisfied and stave off cravings, or help you get a quality workout in. In this case if your goal is weight loss, then you would add in more snacks and eat smaller meals.
- Pre/post-workout meals: I recommend that most of my clients eat something within 2 hours of a workout (before or after, or both). Don’t go 4 hours post workout without eating anything, and don’t try to workout if the last time you ate was more than 4 hours ago. That usually leads to low energy and/or a crappy workout.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about calories… Probably too much. To get an idea of what calorie density is, think about a pat of butter sitting next to an equal-sized slice of carrot. Which one has more calories? The butter, of course. (1 Tbsp butter = 14.2 g = 102 calories; 14.2 g carrot = 6 calories) (3). Which one has more vitamin A? The carrot. (14.2 g butter = 355 IU vitamin A; 14.2 g carrot = 2374 IU vitamin A). The butter is calorie dense, while the carrot is nutrient dense. These concepts are also very much related to volume and portions because obviously you could eat a hell of a lot more carrots to get the same calories as a tablespoon of butter, or you could put away a ton of butter to get the same amount of vitamin A that 14 g of carrots would give you.
- It is important to know which foods pack a lot of calories in a low volume of food, and try to portion those things out appropriately. A little ice cream goes a long way, and if it’s full fat, it will stick with you longer than something with the same amount of sugar but less fat.
- The diet opposite of calorie density is nutrient density. Per unit volume, fruits and vegetables pack a lot of nutrients but are lower in calories because they contain lots of fiber and water to fill you up. It is often good advice to choose foods that are nutrient dense over foods that are calorie dense. But don’t forget that healthy fats are also a part of a balanced diet and an important factor in satiation.
Keep unhealthy things out of sight and out of mind, and keep healthy foods readily available and within reach.
- At home: Keep fresh fruit on the counter, sliced vegetables in the front of the fridge, and food prepped meals ready-to-go.
- On the go: Buy healthy, satiating snacks like nuts, fruit, or snack bars to keep at your desk or in your bag for a pick-me-up on hectic days.
- You don’t have to do all of these things (food prepping is exhausting, I know)… but the more available you make healthy foods, the more likely you are to grab them when you’re in a hurry or feeling stressed.
Familiarity refers to your food habits and your culture, your comfort foods, go-to recipes, and tried and trusted take-out restaurants.
- Familiarity & habits: if you typically have cereal for breakfast, switching to healthier brands and adding some fruit to your meal may be the first step you make towards a healthy diet.
- Familiarity & culture: If you are comfortable cooking with certain spices according to one or a few ethnic cuisines, then the recipes and meals that you prepare can still utilize those flavors. From there, we can talk about making healthier substitutions within those recipes such as brown rice or whole wheat, more vegetables, less meat or leaner proteins. There are so many recipes out there online that can help you transform your favorite foods to make them healthier while maintaining flavor.
- Familiarity is the number one reason that I don’t write meal plans. I don’t know if you like rice cakes or hummus, curry or cumin. I don’t think that I should be the one to write you a diet plan with foods that you hate and recipes that you would never make!
- Additionally, you can start to add healthy foods and habits slowly into your day to get familiar with cooking and eating healthful foods that you are not used to.
- For example, if you love to eat eggs for breakfast, you could start adding a handful of spinach or arugula to your pan of eggs in the morning. In this way, you’re pairing a familiar thing with something that you may not be used to eating in the morning.
- If you like to make or buy smoothies for breakfast, add spinach or another green to the blend. You can even try a couple leaves at first and slowly add more each day to get used to the flavor change.
- If flavored yogurts are your go-to snacks, buy the plain version and add some jelly or honey to sweeten it (Fage is a good brand to help portion out and reduce your added sugars). As time goes on, you can reduce the amount of added sugar and learn to enjoy more tanginess in the plain yogurt.
Variety is all about having diversity and choice amongst your acceptable, familiar foods. These concepts are so important because they allow you to tailor your own healthy diet and make it your own.
- Variety = choice: When you have the freedom to choose what to eat, instead of feeling obligated to choose the only “healthy” menu option or the lowest calorie ingredients… you’ll feel less restricted. In America, we live in a culture of food abundance. Restricting yourself when others around you seem to have so many options is exhausting. Thus, variety is an vital key to sustaining a healthy diet.
- As Brian Wansink (author of Mindless Eating and Slim by Design, two books I highly recommend!) suggests, keep your cupboards and fridge stocked with a wide variety of healthy items and eschew variety when it comes to items that you’d like to eat less of like processed snacks and desserts.
- Food variety is important psychologically and nutritionally. Eating the same things every single day can get super boring. If your diet is not properly balanced, it may not provide you with adequate nutrients, which may lead to cravings, or worse.
- Circling back to our concepts of volume, portions, and familiarity, you don’t HAVE to eat anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like kale salads, there a countless other leafy greens to choose from and different ways to prepare them. That’s the beauty of variety.
- Indulgence is also a part of this concept of variety. Let’s be honest, sugar, salt, and fat make food flavors POP!, and that’s why we crave them. Give yourself some leeway with indulgences so that your tastebuds don’t scream with boredom. If you want to eat ice cream, you have the power of portions! Scoop it out into a small bowl, enjoy it to the fullest, and still meet your goals.
That’s it for my nutrition framework! Comment below and tell me some of the things that help YOU think about and maintain a balanced diet and a healthy relationship with food.