What it means to eat ‘healthy’
A lot of people have some pretty twisted and really ‘out there’ ideas of what it means to eat healthy. It’s not a surprise with every mainstream fitness professional out there promoting a different fad diet, and the government changing their mind every five minutes on whether carbs are bad or fat is bad.
You may have been told that paleo, keto, gluten free, low carb high fat, high carb low fat, intermittent fasting, vegetarian, vegan, raw, or any other diet is ‘the’ way to go. I’m not here to tell you that any of them are bad; all of these diets have pros and cons. But what I am here to say is that no diet is the right diet that you can generalise for everyone.
Regardless of your goals, none of the above or any other specialised diet are a substitute for first properly educating yourself on the basics of nutrition in order to be ‘healthy’.
Let’s start from the very bottom up.
The first thing we need to wrap our heads around are calories. What they are, what that means to you, and how important it is to keep track. A calorie is a unit of energy. You use energy to move, to build muscle, and to digest food. You also use energy to maintain all the things your body does internally to survive, otherwise known as metabolism.
Whether you want to gain weight or lose weight, or just stay the same weight you are, knowing how many calories you use or ‘burn’ in a day is paramount to achieving that goal. If you intake more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. Conversely, if you intake fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. It’s as simple as that! Some people believe that they cannot lose weight no matter how much they diet, but the reality is, excluding metabolic issues like hypothyroidism they are most likely grossly underestimating their calorie intake. Even then, hypothyroidism can be treated and weight loss can be achieved.
First step, you can calculate your ‘Basal Metabolic Rate’, which is the calories you burn doing absolutely nothing, which you can then adjust based on how active you are and how frequently you exercise to get a close estimate of how many calories you burn in total in a day.
The formula for BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is:
For Men: 66.5 + ( 13.75 × weight in kg ) + ( 5.003 × height in cm ) – ( 6.755 × age in years )
For Women: 655.1 + ( 9.563 × weight in kg ) + ( 1.850 × height in cm ) – ( 4.676 × age in years )
This equation is going to give you a very close approximation of your BMR, and from here you can adjust it based on your physical activity level, to get your ‘Total Daily Energy Expenditure’ (TDEE)
If you do little to no exercise, your TDEE = BMR * 1.2
If you do ‘light’ exercise (1 to 3 days a week) your TDEE = BMR * 1.375
If you do ‘moderate’ exercise’ (3 to 5 days a week) your TDEE = BMR * 1.55
If you do ‘heavy’ exercise (5 to 7 days a week) your TDEE = BMR * 1.725
If you do ‘intense’ exercise (twice per day every day) your TDEE = BMR * 1.9
Okay now that was a lot of information. Let me give you a practical example so you can wrap your head around it.
Take Joe Bloggs, who is 180cm, 75kg and he’s 25 years old, and he trains twice a week. Chuck that into the BMR formula, and you get:
66.5 + (1.375 * 75kg) + (5.003 * 180cm) – (6.755 * 25yrs) = 1823.5 kcal
So that means if Mr. Bloggs here never ever ever moved, he would naturally burn 1823.5 kcal per day. But he doesn’t! He walks around, he goes to work, at the very least on any given day he moves his arms to change the channel on the TV, but on top of that he also trains with free weights and a bit of cardio at a moderate intensity twice per week! So he actually uses:
1823.5 * 1.375 (‘lightly active’ modifier from above) = 2507.3 kcal
So if Joe wanted to maintain his weight and stay at 75kg for the rest of the year (take note, not his whole life, because age will change the values of BMR) he’d have to eat roundabout 2500 kcal a day.
Once you understand the ‘how much’ of diet, you have to move on to the ‘what’ of getting your calories in, which are your ‘macronutrients’. That is just a fancy sounding word for the things in food that you can get calories from. Those are three things (technically four things): Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats (and Alcohol, but lets not go around calling that a nutrient).
Understanding macronutrients will help you with the basic construction of your diet.
There is a lot of information in this article so I’m not going to over complicate things, but here I’ll give a basic explanation for the importance of each of the 3 macros.
Put simply, protein is the fundamental building block for making new tissues, and specifically important for fitness enthusiasts, muscle. Protein is in pretty much everything you eat to small degrees, but the common, easy, high protein foods will be things like meat, eggs and milk. For vegetarians or vegans, products such as Quorn and other soya meat replacements, beans and lentils, peanut butter and quinoa and many other foods will also be high in protein and good to base meals around if you have difficulty getting enough in.
In terms of how much protein you should consume every day to ensure your body has the fuel to build muscle, as long as you aren’t eating at a deficit, you should try to eat anywhere between 1.3 and 1.8g of protein per kg of bodymass. Using Joe as an example again, at 75kg, he should be eating between 98 and 135g of protein a day. Personally I would recommend him to always err on the high side there and aim for 135, but the importance of the range here is to bear in mind that if he were to only eat 100g of protein in a day for whatever reason, it’s not the end of the world.
However, If you are eating at a caloric deficit (and by this I mean, if you are eating fewer calories than the ‘TDEE’ that we calculated above) in order to lose weight, then your protein intake may look to be in the 1.8-2.0g per kg of bodymass range, in order to minimise muscle loss.
Carbohydrates and Fats:
Carbohydrates are your fuel. The most basic carbohydrate that exists, that all carbs are made up of, is glucose. This is the stuff that gives you energy to do things. Without glucose, you’re a goner.
That being said, carbs as a whole are a very wide spectrum to choose from, and you will want to think critically about what different kinds of carbs you want to intake. In general, ensuring that a majority of your carbs are more ‘whole grain’ or ‘complex’ and less ‘processed’ or ‘simple’ will be better for making sure you have a more steady stream of energy throughout the day. When thinking ‘complex’ think rice and potatoes and pasta and couscous and quinoa, etc. When thinking ‘simple’ we mean candies, soda, white sugar, donuts and cake. I’m not going to say that simple carbs are evil and you should avoid them at all costs, because there’s a time and a place for moderate amounts of everything, but if you are trying to lose weight, avoiding them in place of other foods will help with fitting in a satiating amount of food in the daily calories you have to spare.
Fats are important for 2 reasons. They, like carbs, are also a source of energy (much more slowly released than carbs, so make you feel fuller for longer) and are also important for hormone and general body function, especially as certain vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) are fat soluble. That basically means you won’t be making very good use of them without fats.
Carbs can only be stored in quite small amounts in your body (as glycogen, if you are curious) and it can be mobilised very quickly to give you lots of energy quite quickly. Fat, on the other hand can be stored in very large amounts in the muscle fibres and of course in actual body fat in near infinite amounts! It is more than twice as energy dense as carbs (Fats are 9 kcal per gram, whereas carbs are only 4kcal per gram; protein is also only around 4kcal per gram). This is one reason why it is easier to overeat if you consume a lot of fatty foods, because for the same mass of food, you are eating many more calories. However, that is not a reason to avoid fats, because like we established, they are essential, and your diet should be a good balance of carbs and fats from the right sources.
When discussing what ‘the right sources’ look like, in terms of fats, it’s a bit of a controversial topic. The two main types of dietary fats are saturated and unsaturated fats. Surely you’ve heard about the evils of ‘saturated fats’ and their contribution to giving you heart disease, killing your family and plunging the world into eternal hellfire. Okay maybe not the last two, but that’s not far off from the misinformed popular consensus about saturated fats. Realistically, the jury is currently out on whether or not there is a causal link with heart disease. There is evidence on either side, and if you are listening to medical professionals, they will always place more weight on the research that suggests there might be problems, rather than that which suggests there might not be, to be safe and ensure people aren’t damaging their health. Realistically, if you are healthy and not needing direct medical guidance on your diet due to medical issues, the right sources of saturated fats in moderation are no bad thing, and actually benefit your body in many ways.
Saturated Fat sources include foods like animal fats, butter, cheese, milk, and cookies/cakes/pastries/etc.
Unsaturated fat sources include foods like nuts, fish, vegetable oils, olive oil, and avocados.
When I talk about the ‘right’ fat sources, I mean foods that contain fats and ALSO vitamins, minerals, protein, carbs, and other stuff you need at the same time. So don’t go eating a whole cake covered in half a pound of lard every day and defend yourself saying ‘Oh but Nick told me that saturated fats are good for me!’, or chugging a pint of olive oil, assuming that’s ‘your fat requirements met for the day’. Be sensible!
Micronutrients are your vitamins and minerals. They are just as important as macronutrients! These will determine the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ sources of all of your macros, because you will be getting more bang for your buck. Eating food rich in both macros and micros is always better than eating 40 twinkies for your daily carbs, pounding 3 dry scoops of protein powder for your protein, and swallowing a stick of butter for your fat, and then chowing down on a bucket of spinach for some vitamins all separately.
For your average person trying to be healthy, there’s no need to track micros. That’s just a recipe for losing the will to live obsessing over numbers. If you eat a diet rich in vegetables and a bit of fruit, by and large you should be good to go.
For those that want more detail about micronutrients, the different categories of vegetables you will want to make sure to be eating, etc. I will write a part 2 to this guide, but for the sake of brevity, and because I’ve already said quite a lot here to absorb in one go, that’s all I will say for now.
Putting it together:
So if you know your TDEE, and you know the basics about macronutrients, you can fit it all together and have a rough guide of what and how and how much to eat.
You can use this information to varying levels of complexity. Here are the two ways I could suggest to you, depending on how you’d like to approach it.
Method 1: Methodical
- Track your Calories, Protein, Carbs and Fats
- Track macronutrient ratios, which can be done on MyFitnessPal (e.g. 20% of calories from protein, 30% from fat, 50% from carbs)
- Plan your meals so that your overall daily
Method 2: Intuitive
- Track Daily Calories and Protein, eating 1.3-1.8g of protein per kg of bodymass
- Allow the proportion of carbs and fats to fluctuate day by day, being smart and choosing ‘whole’ foods with lots of veg, and eating minimal amounts of candy, soda, cakes and ‘shitty’ food.
Method 3: Minimal Involvement
- Track Weekly Calories and Protein, allowing for some days to be under and some days to be over, as long as the weekly count hits the mark
- Do the same smart food choices and critical thinking about your diet as in Method 2, without needing to track everything you do.
Everyone is different, and every method will work better for some than others. In the end the method that you stick with is the most effective one.
Typically I’d recommend trying method 1 for a month, til you are pretty confident with eyeballing macros roughly, then move onto method 2 from then on, then from there move on to method 3 if you really want to, but the difference between 2 and 3 is mostly just preference.
Hope that helped!
Let me know what you think or what you’d like to learn about next