It is time to zoom out of the micronutrients again and get back to the meat of dieting (or tofu if vegetarian). By now we should have a general grasp of how many Calories we should be taking in daily and how to divide up the three major macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). Although, knowing exactly what foods we should be eating may be kind of fuzzy (it’s just harmless mold) in our minds and there is plenty of grey area outside of simply not eating junk we know we shouldn’t eat.
First we should decide whether the food in question can be defined as nutrient dense, which are commonly of plant origin (non-starchy vegetables being on top with the most micronutrients for the Calories [broccoli, greens, tomatoes, etc] followed by starchy vegetables [sweet potato, squash, corn, pumpkin, etc.], fruit [with less emphasis on melon and dried fruits], beans, whole grains, dairy products, lean meats, nuts, and oils), or if it is something more energy dense such as refined grains, fruit juice, fatty meats, processed foods, sodas, desserts, and candies. Nutrient dense foods should constitute the majority of what we are eating with energy dense foods to be consumed as a part of what are called “cheat meals” (to be elaborated on further).
The next focus needs to be, “Do I like this food or not?” because setting up a staple diet or “base diet” will be met with failure in the long term if we cannot tolerate the foods on our meal plan (olives kill me). Not everybody likes the same fruits and vegetables, meats, grains, nuts, etc. and so the items, albeit healthy and nutritious, we are going to stock our refrigerators and cabinets with need to make sense in accordance to our taste preferences (“No! You’re eating tree bark!”). After we have decided what foods we will be incorporating into our shopping list, then we must determine the nutrient profiles of each food down to the Calories, grams carbohydrate (CHO), protein (PRO), fat, and fiber (micronutrients is optional) based on the portion sizes we are going to eat. This used to be a laborious process but calculating such information has been made a whole lot easier with websites such as www.calorieking.com, www.nutritiondata.self.com, www.caloriecount.about.com, www.fatsecret.com, and the wildly popular and successful www.myfitnesspal.com which has gone mobile and can be downloaded as an app for a smart phone. Here is a screen shot of a food’s nutrition profile via My Fitness Pal:
Furthermore, a good website to start with that can assist us in better understanding healthy portions for adults is www.choosemyplate.gov which provides a very neat and concise graphic of a plate sectioned off by appropriate serving sizes of the major food groups (replaced the Food Guide Pyramid which was lacking in practical application).
More technical information about exact measurements for grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, protein foods, and oils based on age and gender can be found under the “MyPlate” tab of the website for those of us who do not want to leave anything to ambiguity. The website’s “Super Tracker” can be useful for calculating or recommending one’s daily Caloric intake based on age, gender, height, weight, and level of physical activity. There are also meal plans available including how to eat while on a conservative budget and continually updated nutrition education resources.
Upon MyPlate’s implementation by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on June 2, 2011, it was met with criticism by certain nutrition scholars for omitting a section on healthy fats and oils and for creating recommendations under the influence of major agricultural corporations. Matter of fact, the Harvard School of Public Health actually revised the USDA’s recommendations and created a healthy eating program that addresses the above concerns. Take a look at the differences in the graphics:
- These recommendations have been made for the general U.S. population and of course are not suited for an individual on a low carbohydrate diet, the Paleo diet, a low fiber diet, or other individualistic diet plans
Once we have settled on the portion sizes of nutrient dense foods that work for us and have calculated the Calories and grams of macronutrients for each using one of the above resources, it is time for the most difficult part…piecing together a meal plan around a 3, 4, 5, or 6 times a day eating schedule (I personally recommend 5 or 6 times a day of 3 small meals with 2 or 3 healthy snacks in between in order to control appetite better and maintain stable blood glucose). We can get as creative as desired in relation to the combination of foods we write down but afterword we’ll need to add up total Calories, grams CHO, PRO, fat, and fiber and hope we are in the ballpark according to our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), physical activity, and protein calculations (most likely we won’t be on the first try). It helps to first determine the percentages of daily Calories from CHO, PRO, and fat (by dividing the part by the whole; see “Recording Calories” post for more information) in order to concentrate better on the food sources we want to increase or decrease to attain desired total Calories or percent ratios of macronutrients (with protein needs already figured out, most likely food sources of CHO and fat will be played with more so). For adjustments, the easiest way to lower total daily Calories is to decrease fatty foods such as nuts, oils, and nut butters since fat contributes nine Calories per gram (see “Diet Plans” section of our website for examples of meal plans).
The great thing about this mathematical process, though tedious, is that most likely the nutrition profiles of all of our approved foods will be memorized. This sets the stage for what we can call our base diet meaning that we know, to a very good estimate, how many Calories we are consuming daily by eating the same foods at their designated portion sizes. Such a method is very beneficial for those of us that eat haphazardly those foods which are simply available or convenient. The alternative, in regards to eating based on opportunity rather than having a plan, would be to maintain daily food diaries through My Fitness Pal or another app and constantly stressing about adjustments throughout the day but who the heck wants to do that? Having a base diet saves us from unnecessary calculation and therefore time wasted in our already busy lives. Once our base diet is established (grocery shopping for the same goods in other words), we may also find our monthly grocery bill settle at a consistent average.
All of the above is not to say that we cannot have foods “off the menu” because no one (unless getting paid) is going to adhere to their diet plan 100% as it’s not realistic. The point is to maintain consistency because it is the sum of what we do over time that leads to success. Slip ups along the way are again considered “cheat meals” and these are definitely to be enjoyed throughout the journey of life but of course we can’t have them all the time or every day. A good limit for cheat meals (energy dense foods) is two to three times per week for someone at their goal weight (be more conservative if three) but only one time per week for the serious dieter. In brief, a cheat meal includes the main course (one large slice of pizza, one cheeseburger, a fatty steak, etc.) and two sides (beans, French fries, scalloped potatoes, coleslaw, etc.) equipped with one dessert and a sugary or alcoholic beverage. There is a concept known as the “cheat day” which is a day of eating whatever the heart desires for any given meal but no concerned nutritionist or dietitian can seriously recommend this without feeling negligent (and based on my personal experience, feeling completely lousy after a day of binging just isn’t worth it and I assume it would have long term negative health consequences).
Eventually, we will get tired of eating the same foods “day in and day out” so room must be made for substitutions to keep our diet interesting and enjoyable. Substitutions or the swapping of one nutrient dense food for another can be done safely but this is a subject deserving of its own post. We are getting closer by the day to having a solid nutrition foundation built on knowledge and experience so stayed tuned because now we move forward into minerals! Lots of minerals!