The Ultimate Primer on Nutrition:
A guide to maintaining a healthy weight, maximizing energy, and increasing healthspan.
The following is meant to be the primer on how to eat for health in the modern world—the most crucial information you need to get started without getting lost in all the details. There is so much information out there that it becomes easy to get overwhelmed. This guide is meant to bypass all the noise and get you on a path to optimal health.
I have worked with thousands of clients on a one-on-one basis, and have been studying nutrition deeply for over seven years. My education in biology and medicine, in addition to a focus on behavioral change and preventative health has lead me to develop some core ideas around nutrition. One of the foundations is that everything I suggest must be simple to implement and eventually lead to sustainable postive changes for the rest of your life.
The first thing to consider is: Nutrition does not exist in a vacuum. If you are sleeping poorly and are sedentary most of the day, it is very difficult to change habits around nutrition.
That might seem like common sense, but you would be surprised to see the lengths people go through to fix their diet without addressing the major reason they overeat in the first place. If you are getting poor sleep or are extremely stressed, you are much more likely to deal with low energy and cravings for unhealthy, processed foods the next day.
When addressing dietary changes, you can continue to look for quick fixes that don't exist or focus on fundamental shifts in eating behavior that will have the greatest long-term impact. If you decide on the latter, you are in the right place.
Why are people, especially in developed nations, more chronically unhealthy and overweight than ever before? There are many different variables in the modern world that lead to that, but one main reason is there is easier, more convenient access to processed, unhealthy food than we've ever had in history. We have delicious snacks around us everywhere we look. Amazing food can be delivered to us by the touch of a button, all of it being advertised to us in ways that make it very difficult to control our eating habits. And all this food is cheaper and tastier than ever while being loaded with calories and unhealthy ingredients.
I work with patients who come to me depressed that they don't 'have the willpower' to maintain a healthy body weight. They are mistaken. This is not a willpower problem. We must first identify what we are up against: billion-dollar industries, with some of the smartest, most educated people on this planet, whose only job is to hook you to the products they create. If you are hoping to utilize only 'willpower' against that, you will lose the game.
The key is to create powerful, personalized systems around the most important aspect of health. You can refer to these as routines or habits.
Different foods have different effects on satiety and hunger, can alter energy levels and elicit different hormonal responses (I will not be getting into the nitty-gritty details of hormones and insulin response here. Just following the steps outlined below inherently addresses that).
The #1 rule is straightforward: choose whole, unprocessed foods over processed foods whenever possible. Most foods are processed to some degree, but what we really want is for people to choose foods that their great-grandmother might recognize over foods that come in bags or boxes at the gas station or grocery store. Here is a guide to whole foods based nutrition.
I can eat 2000 calories worth of oreos and still be hungry. I can put down a whole bag of potato chips, and still want more. This is virutally impossible to do with real food. Your body has inbuilt satiety mechanisms that come into play when you choose real food - you will not have to rely on willpower to stop overeating anymore.
In order to effectively navigate our relationship with food, establish a regular eating routine. In the modern environment, we are faced with a surplus of culinary options available to us at any given moment, disrupting the natural rhythms of our bodies. By embracing consistency, not only do we nurture our digestive well-being, but we are also better able to regulate our sense of satiety and sustain optimal energy levels. Ideally, we should strive to adhere to a predictable mealtime pattern - ideally within a 10 to 11-hour window. To illustrate how this may manifest in a typical day, consider the following sample schedule
7am: Wake up. 15-minute walk outside or other light physical activity will wake you up more than a cup of coffee will. Save the coffee until breakfast time.
8:30am: nutritious breakfast (i.e Ezekial sprouted grain bread with one or two eggs, ½ avocado, berries, 20-30 grams of salmon or other protein). Should be satisfying enough so that there is not much hunger between meals
12:30pm: nutritious lunch (i.e. hearty green salad and/or soup with healthy protein, such as chicken, salmon, chickpeas, etc). Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli are especially healthy, nutrient-dense, and filling. How you cook them (preferably steamed or boiled), has an impact on how well you digest them.
6/7pm: lighter dinner. can include more complex carbs during dinner since they are easier to digest and you want to have a fairly empty stomach for proper sleep quality. Finish eating by 7:30pm (11 hour eating window) if you plan on being asleep by 10:30 (3 hours between your last meal and when you sleep).
3. Avoid processed snacks and fast food.
The more access to fast food and snacks you have, the bigger you will get. Just ask any developing nation. The obesity epidemic can be explained by this one factor alone.
It’s quite simple, really. You are bombarded with the most deliciously engineered foods ever made in the history of the world and psychologically persuaded into craving them by expert ad makers—all this done by multibillion-dollar corporations whose only job is to make sure you keep on snacking. A lot of resources have been invested into making people crave calorically heavy junk food, so it should be no surprise a large amount of the population has a hard time controlling those cravings.
Many people, especially those in more unfortunate economic circumstances, have too many other things to worry about than not eating excess calories—especially when so much deliciousness and comfort abounds in a cheap and convenient package. It takes an incredible amount of self-control to avoid eating tasty processed food when you are surrounded by it on every street corner and see ads for it constantly. It is unavoidable.
There's a reason why non-industrialized societies never had an obesity problem. And it's not because they all have fast metabolisms. It's because they didn't have effortless access to junk food 24/7.
Why exactly are processed foods a very bad idea when trying to maintain a healthy weight? Because they have the following characteristics:
Calorically dense (due to high amounts of added sugars or carbohydrates and/or high amount of fat/oils)
Nutritionally sparse (low amount of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients, so they barely curb your hunger when eaten)
Extremely tasty (literally engineered to hit all the right pleasure centers in your mouth and brain, making it very easy to binge eat)
Super convenient (a lot of people don't want to use their time and energy to prepare food, so it is much easier to get something tasty and cheap in five minutes for three dollars. If you want to explain obesity in America, it doesn't get much more complicated than that).
It is just incredibly easy to overeat the food that is sold to us by big food corporations. Tasty snacks can serve a purpose, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them every now and then. But the key is the "every now and then." Moderation is the basis of any sustainable lifestyle.
If you are finishing half a large bag of Doritos every day, well, it shouldn't be too hard to realize what you need to do to start losing weight. The easier it is for you to access that bag of snacks impulsively, the easier it will be for you to overeat. You must do everything in your power to not keep processed snacks in your house or near where you work.
"We know from experience that no matter how many calories worth of Skittles or Oreos we eat, we won’t satisfy our hunger. Our stomachs might be full to bursting—but as soon as we have room to digest it, we’ll be hungry again, because Skittles and Oreos don’t give us the nutrients we need to live. If we’re short on any one of the hundreds of nutrients our body needs, we’ll keep eating until we get it." (source)
Avoiding snacking can be difficult, especially if you're used to it. If you're getting strong cravings for snacks, you need to find low calorie, non-addicting alternatives. Something that gives a light crunch when you bite into it, like carrots, are ideal.
It is in these moments that another pillar comes in handy:
It's surprising how much you can overcome light hunger by just waiting it out for a few minutes instead of impulsively reaching for food the moment you feel like you need to put something in your mouth. You can use a mindfulness technique called "urge surfing" to much better control when and what you eat.
Being mindful of what you eat is also being appreciative of what you put in your mouth. People have a tendency to gobble up their food in an instant, barely taking the time to savor and enjoy it. Eating slower decreases the amount of food you eat. By extending the time between when you eat, you will also find that foods that might not be as palatable before, like vegetables, can start tasting much better.
This is also why structured eating regimens like intermittent fasting can work wonders. By only giving you a set time to eat most of your food, the light hunger pangs you might feel earlier in the day will not cause you to snack, adding hundreds of unnecessary calories. Fasting can produce a whole host of other biochemical benefits, but when it comes to weight loss, the reason it works is that you are simply eating less.
Try and stock your house with healthier fare that you can snack on if you need to. If you are able to hold off on satisfying your hunger for a little bit, the nourishment you get from fresh vegetables and other healthy foods will start becoming really satisfying.
Tip: avoid going to the grocery store on an empty stomach, you might end up buying a lot of snacks. The number one way to avoid snacking on delicious food is by not having it where you live. Make a grocery list and only buy stuff on the list, so you don't aimlessly wander around aisles and impulsively make snack purchases. It takes heaps of willpower to resist some of the offerings at the store, as they are all made to catch your eye, so get in there, grab what's on your list, and get out. Most things in the middle of the grocery store can be avoided. Try and shop around the outer ring of the store, where most of the fresh produce and meats are kept.
Snacks to avoid: Bags of chips (any kind! They are just too tasty and easy to eat), boxes of crackers, cookies, candy, and any type of processed, engineered food that you think you can eat a lot of. If you buy that box of Wheat Thins, it is very easy to eat the entire thing in one sitting, and it is going cause you to gain weight! Save these types of food for get-togethers and parties. If you are having a hard time eliminating them completely from your diet initially, buy small portioned (1 ounce or less) snack sized bags so you can have some control over how much you eat. Never eat out of large size bags or boxes!
4. Prioritize high protein, high fiber, nutrient-rich foods.
"We speculate that it is the protein, and not carbohydrate, content that is important in promoting short-term weight loss and that this effect is likely due to increased satiety caused by increased dietary protein. It has been suggested that the increased satiety might help persons to be more compliant with a hypocaloric diet and achieve greater weight loss. The current evidence, combined with the need to meet all nutrient requirements, suggests that hypocaloric weight-loss diets should be moderate in carbohydrate (35% to 50% of energy), moderate in fat (25% to 35% of energy), and protein should contribute 25% to 30% of energy intake." (source)
In addition to the three main macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) your body uses for energy and upkeep, it also needs micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to function. What is one of the ways your body ensures it is meeting its nutrient demands? By making you hungry when you are not getting enough of them! Eating more nutrient-rich foods, like vegetables, is one way to curb hunger. (source)
Combining those nutrient-rich, high fiber vegetables with high protein foods is an ideal combination when trying to eat fewer calories. (source)
"Generally speaking, foods that rank high in the satiety index (SI) and satisfy your hunger for a longer period of time, are foods with high protein, water and/or fiber content. These foods will help make you feel full, literally by filling your stomach, and with a full stomach you can more easily avoid nibbling." (source)
Now that you know what you need to eat, the actual issue becomes dietary adherence. Protein and vegetables are not usually palatable for most people without being doused with fat or eaten with tons of carbs. That is the reason a sensible looking chicken salad can have more fat and calories than some fast food burgers.
Learning basic cooking mitigates some of these issues, as you can learn very tasty dishes that are low in calories and meet all your nutrient demands. Seasonings, which there seem to be more than ever, also come in handy. You can use salt and pepper liberally if you are cooking (you will use nowhere near the quantities that snack food companies use no matter how much you try), along with all kinds of other goodness like sriracha sauce. Just make sure it is lower calorie by avoiding sugar and fat heavy sides.
If you are in ketosis, consuming larger amounts of fat might be fine, because that will be primarily used as energy by your body, but if you are not—meaning you are still consuming significant amounts of carbohydrates that end up being your body's preferred fuel source, then any excess dietary fat that is consumed will be preferentially stored as... fat! (source) (source) (source)
I make this point because there are some people who seem to be confused by the high-fat diet trend. In the end, any macronutrient eaten in excess will be stored as fat, even protein, though that seems much harder to do. The best way to not overeat is to know how many calories you are eating now, and then reduce that amount in a sustainable way.
5. Track your eating (log your calories) for at least one week.
The single most unintended thing that leads to weight gain is that people do not realize the number of calories they are consuming. They wildly miscalculate the number of calories in their food, and then place blame on other factors, such as metabolism. (source)
In the beginning, if you are having a hard time making changes to your diet, I highly recommend you just take the simplest of steps: Start logging what you eat. You don't have to do anything else.
This serves two purposes:
1) You will become more mindful of what you eat (instead of eating impulsively) if you have to record it every time.
2) You will get a general idea of how many calories you are actually consuming, and if you are overweight, you are almost certainly underestimating that number right now.
Use one of the many great apps or programs I have conveniently listed for you to keep track of the food you are consuming throughout the day. And do this for one week consistently. That is all you have to do (also be truthful with yourself).
By taking this one step, you will get an approximation of the "calories in" part of the equation. Go here to calculate an estimate of your BMR ("calories out") and get an idea of the energy your body uses throughout the day. There is some variability and guesswork involved in calorie expenditure, so don't worry too much about the fine details. The entire point of this is to get a general idea of what you are consuming and to prevent you from overeating, not for you to meticulously calculate and worry about every single calorie.
You can even make this into a little challenge for yourself. You're allowed to eat whatever you want, but only if you log it. This might make you reconsider before reaching for something just because it is close by. And if it isn't worth taking the effort to simply write down what you consume then it might not be worth eating in the first place.
One thing you don't have to log and you can eat as much as you want of: green vegetables. Don't worry about your caloric intake of these superfoods. Your body does a pretty good job of regulating caloric intake as long as you are getting the right nutrients. Just make sure you are noting any sauces or dressings you use because they can contain unnecessary fat and/or sugar calories.
This doesn't mean you have to track calories for the rest of your life. But it is a good idea to do this for at least a week so you get some notion of how many calories are in the foods you eat. After a week of doing this, you might not ever need to track calories again because you will get a better sense of appropriate portion sizes. Many people overeat without realizing it and by avoiding that you will lose weight.
It might be helpful to keep a digital weight scale in the kitchen. It will allow you to easily measure portions.
Tip: If you are trying to lose weight keeping track of your personal progress with pictures and journal entries is a good way to see how far you've come. I guarantee you will appreciate doing that a year from now. It serves as great motivation to keep on going. Use one of the many fitness trackers (or just a plain notebook), to keep track of your weight, and take pictures to truly notice the changes your body is going through. Just don't get too obsessive about the number on the weight scale. Having a healthy body amounts to much more than that.
Conclusion: Bringing it all together.
1) Minimize consumption of sugar
2) Avoid drinking your calories
3) Stop eating processed snacks and fast food
4) Prioritize high protein, high fiber, nutritious food
5) Track your food intake for at least a week
You will lose weight. Full Stop. If weight loss is your number one priority, you don't have to do anything else other than what is listed above.
How you effectively go about doing that without losing your mind is the obvious next issue to tackle.
Changing your eating behaviors is related to self-control and regulation, which ties back into to the other pillars: mindfulness, exercise, and sleep. It will be much easier to maintain a healthy eating lifestyle if you are you are getting the proper sleep, staying active, and become more mindful of how you feel when you're hungry or while eating.
Our environment also plays a large role in our behavior. Keeping a healthy eating environment around your home and work might be difficult, but it is very important. If your friends are giving you weird looks because you don't want to share dessert with them anymore, it's okay to tell them that you are trying to avoid sugar to lose some weight and become healthier.
At the same time, focusing too much on restricting foods will set you up for failure in the end. I'm well aware that much of the guidelines above involve avoiding foods that might have been lifelong pleasures. If snacks and sugary drinks have always been a part of your diet, the first steps in this process will be the most difficult. I've tried to provide as much helpful information on this site as possible to make it easier for you to completely transform your lifestyle.
Your goal should be to gradually cut down on how much you eat, week by week. Remember, this is about sustaining a diet for the rest of your life, so it is okay to start slow and get a hang of things. In the long run, all that matters is making sure you commit and prioritize what is outlined above.
It's also important that you do not go through life with a phobia of anything that is sweet or salty after reading this. Food has a much more important role than just sustenance. It plays an important social role, allows pleasurable memories, and having a healthy relationship with it is an important part of having a good life.
The above guidelines are meant as a starting point for overweight and obese people to finally start losing weight. Slowly introducing habits that make you follow the guidelines above will be the easiest way to induce weight loss.
Harvard epidemiologist Deirdre Tobias put it most succinctly:
"Low-carb versus low-fat should not be the focus for people selecting a weight loss diet." The focus, she said, should be on improving the quality of food that people eat instead. (source)
You will find that your relationship to food will have changed by the time you reach a healthy weight. Junk food won't be as tasty, as your brain and taste buds will have adapted to real, nourishing food once again. The entire process will become easier the more you keep at it.
You will also learn you can be quite flexible with the foods you eat. You can enjoy those sweet and salty snacks every now and then and it won't be a big deal because, at a healthy weight, you will have much more clarity of what needs to be done to manage your cravings and avoid binging. The most difficult part of your journey might be this very moment. As you start to change, your body adapts, and the self-control you need to avoid certain foods will come much more naturally.
It is inevitable you will have minor setbacks along the way. Just remember, a couple of bad days is not an excuse to give up on all that life has to offer. You must get back on the horse and keep going.
In the end, it comes down to emphasizing consistency day after day, and improvement week after week. If you do this, you will get results month after month, and after a year you will be surprised at how far you have come. You will be able to look back and be thankful that you decided to begin your weight loss journey today.
I will be posting a convenient cheat sheet you can print out below soon. Most people will skim over this article once, then go on to forget about it within a couple of days, essentially doing nothing to help their weight situation. If you really want to make changes, print out the following page and tape it to your desk, or fridge, or above your computer. Wherever you can easily glance at it, so you can always be reminded of them. By just following these five rules you can accomplish most of your weight loss goals.
If you found this article helpful, I only ask that you share it if possible (a tweet or facebook mention really helps). There are people out there for whom this information would be extremely useful, and the chances of someone who needs this advice coming across it are really low, unless it is shared with them.