Designing a Proper Nutrition Plan
In this article, I will talk about how proper nutrition and designing your nutrition plan. I will offer advice on what to eat, when to eat, and what to avoid, as well as some sound nutritional advice. For the purpose of this article, I will not assume any specific goals (e.g. weight loss or weight gain). Instead, I will offer a sound nutritional template, which can then be tweaked to fit any particular goal, usually simply by increasing or decreasing the number of daily calories.
At the bottom of this article you can find a summary, which you can use to develop your own nutrition plan.
Determining your calories and macronutrients
In the following article, I will refer to your energy/calorie needs. Basically this refers to the number of calories you need to either break even or to gain/lose weight. This number varies from person to person, and consists of your basic metabolic rate (BMR), i.e. the calories you use to stay alive while at rest, plus the calories you burn form being active. To estimate yours you can use our Daily Calorie Calculator.
The second important part is to determine how these calories should be split up between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. I explain how this is done in the article on Macronutrient Ratio. There, I recommend a 40-30-30 distribution for most people, i.e. where 40% of your daily calories come from carbs, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. If you want to get an idea of what that means, you can use our Macronutrient Calculator.
To formulate a proper nutrition plan, you should in the very least have a rough idea of your requirements, which you can then refine through trial and error.
Meal frequency & composition
This is a very tricky subject. The reason for this is that there is a great deal of disagreement on the subject. Mainstream fitness & nutrition guidelines usually say that you should eat 4-6 meals per day. Several reasons are given for this, positive effects on the metabolism and a greater feeling of fullness. The problem with these recommendations is the limited number of studies and the inconsistent/contradictory results they produced (Schoenfeld, 2013). However, it does seem that eating smaller meals is beneficiial towards stabilizing blood sugar, which has a number of positive effects.
It is not my goal here to re-shape the fitness industry, I will leave that to the scientists. Therefore, I will leave it up to the individual to experiment and decide whether they want to eat fewer meals or whether they want to eat more frequently. However, I will point to the mainstream recommendations and say that personally I have seen better results with fewer and smaller meals - if nothing else, one avoids the feeling of lethargy following big meals and one is better able to micromanage the nutritional program to meet your immediate needs (i.e. the next few hours).
I would however, recommend the following:
- Think ahead and eat for what you are about to do. Eat larger meals, heavier on carbs, earlier in the day and prior to periods of activity. Eat smaller meals, lighter on carbs, later in the day.
- Avoid snacking. Make each meal a balanced meal where you get the right proportion of carbs, proteins and fats.
- Pick a number of meals between 3 and 6, and be consistent. I.e. do not vary that number from one day to the next since that may negatively affect your metabolism (Farshchi et al. 2004; Farshchi et al. 2005).
- Eat balanced and do not deprive the body of one of the macronutrients. Low carb diets for example are very popular these days, but carbs are a great source of energy (including for our brains). Instead, follow the nutritional advice in the next subsection and eat the right kinds of carbs. In the article on Quick Weight Loss Diets you can read more about the problem with restrictive plans.
What to eat and what not to eat
The goal is to eliminate low quality foods in favor of high quality ones. But what determines quality?
What to limit:
- Processed foods: These tend to have additives and way too much salt (see "sodium" below). Jack LaLanne coined a saying years ago, which still holds true today: "if man made it, don't eat it".
- Refined carbohydrates: The process of refining carbs makes the sugar more concentrated by removing other things that naturally occur in the food, e.g. fiber and water (vitamins are also often lost in the process). Refined foods tend to clock higher on the glycemic index, leading to sugar spikes and drops. Refined carbohydrates examples include: white flour, table sugar, white rice, refined cereals, refined pasta, etc.
- Foods with sugar added to them: These are essentially empty calories, meaning that you can eliminate them, thus lowering your daily calories, without diminishing the nutritional value of your diet. Moreover, foods with sugar added tend to have a higher glycemic value, leading to sugar spikes and drops.
- Alcohol: Alcohol consumption should be minimized or kept at a moderate level. In particular, excessive drinking should be avoided as it is linked with liver damage, stroke, weight gain, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and so on.
- Trans fat: This is a type of man-made unsaturated fat that is considered particularly unhealthy. It increases the chance of heart disease as well as being linked to a host of other illnesses and conditions. As much as possible avoid trans fat.
- Saturated fats: These should be moderated since they can negatively affect cholesterol. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 10% of daily calories to come from saturated fats. Saturated fats are primarily found in animal products. Instead, replace excess saturated fat with poly- and monounsaturated fats.
- Sodium: Sodium, which we primarily get from salt, is necessary in small quantities. The problem is most of us get way too much, and this has a negative effect on our health — in particular on hypertension. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) recommend either below 2300 mg per day, while noting that 1500 mg per day or less should be the target for certain groups (e.g. people with hypertension, diabetes, or people over 51). One of the biggest culprits here is our intake of processed foods, so eliminating those will go a long way.
- Foods high in cholesterol: These should be moderated. Although our bodies' cholesterol levels are affected more by saturated fat intake rather than cholesterol intake, a high intake of cholesterol is linked with a higher chance of developing cardiovascular disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends staying within 300mg.
What to eat:
- Whole grain foods: Most of the grain we consume should be whole grain. Read the labels of the products.
- Unrefined carbohydrates: These foods will tend to be more nutritious, higher in fiber, and lower on the glycemic index.
- Unprocessed foods: E.g. vegetables, fruit, fresh meats & fish, grains & cereals, eggs, etc.
- Unsaturated fats & essential fatty acids: Replacing most of your fats with poly- and monounsaturated fats is a good step. However, pay attention to your essential fatty acids. These are fats that our body needs to stay healthy but cannot synthesize. There are two essential fatty acids, Omega 3 and 6. Omega 6 we tend to get too much of in the Western diet, while Omega 3 is usually deficient. Sources of Omega 3 include fish (e.g salmon, trout, sardines, tuna), walnuts, flax, leafy green vegetables, beans.
- Dietary fiber: Dietary fiber comes in two forms, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber has a positive effect on blood sugar and cholesterol levels, while insoluble fiber regulates bowel movements. Fiber helps weight control, since fiber rich foods are less energy dense and more filling, as well as reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010). Most Americans get far less fiber than they need. The recommended amount is 14g per 1000 calories. Good sources include vegetables (in particular legumes such as beans), fruits and whole grains.
This may seem overwhelming, but if you notice there is a common thread throughout. If you eliminate/minimize processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and foods rich in unhealthy fats, and then replace them with unprocessed foods and whole grain carbs you will have taken a huge step in the right direction.
Micronutrients & supplementation & water
Micronutrients refer to the vitamins and minerals that we need every day in order to stay healthy and for our bodies to function properly. I will not go into the benefits of each kind of vitamin and mineral here. Consuming a varied diet that adheres to sound nutritional guidelines (i.e. rich in produce, whole foods, etc.) will be enough for most people. However, supplementation is an option, and one that may be particularly useful for people who engage in rigorous physical training. A good quality vitamin supplement taken daily and which covers the minimum daily values should be adequate. Remember, do not rely on this supplement, rely first and foremost on your proper nutritional plan.
Finally, there is the issue of water. It is important to stay properly hydrated since water is essential for our bodies. Your diet (i.e. water content in the food you eat), activity level, tendency to sweat, and environmental factors (such as temperature) will determine how much you need. So, listen to your body, prepare for periods of high activity, and always make sure you have a water bottle close at hand.
Healthy eating patterns
Nutrition is very much about slow and steady. You want to make choices that you can sustain and that will help you to create a better lifestyle. Too often people are interested in quick results, but the problem is quick results are fleeting because they do not give you tools you can live by. This is the reason so many people seem caught in an endless cycle of losing and gaining weight.
Here are some guidelines for your nutritional plan:
- Stay within your target calories, and monitor your weight, body fat, and general appearance so that you can tweak your nutritional plan to meet your specific goals. If you weigh yourself, do so rarely (e.g. once per week), on an empty stomach, and under similar conditions (e.g. time of day and clothing).
- Make small, gradual changes towards a better nutritional plan. If you make sudden changes, you will be overwhelmed by the cravings and it will increase the chance of failure. If done right, nutrition should not be that difficult.
- Combine your nutritional plan with exercise, so that you can maximize your health benefits and physical performance.
- If you fall off the horse, get right back on. The odd cheat day won't kill you, in fact it may even be a good thing. The problem is some people see an off day as a failure and they literally give up. This is the wrong attitude. Think in the long-term.
In the near future, I will write up some sample nutritional plans for different fictitious people of varying ages and activity levels. For now, I hope you have the tools that you need to get you well on your way to building a sound and proper nutritional plan to suit your specific requirements.
Conclusion: Designing your Nutrition Plan
- Calculate your daily calorie needs.
- Weight loss?
- Weight gain?
- Calculate your macronutrient distribution.
- Plan your daily meals.
- Mainstream recommendations are 4-6 meals/day
- Aim for balanced meals.
- Think ahead. Eat for what you are about to do.
- Aim for a varied diet.
- If you are not used to eating healthy:
- Make changes gradually.
- Focus on the long-term.
- Do not give up when you face a setback.
- Choose foods that are:
- Mostly unprocessed
- Based on whole grain carbs
- High in dietary fiber
- Free of trans fat
- Low on saturated fat & cholesterol
- Low on refined carbohydrates
- Low on sodium
- Limit/avoid alcohol and foods with sugar added to them
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Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Decreased thermic effect of food after an irregular compared with a regular meal pattern in healthy lean women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 May;28(5):653-60.
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