Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Nutrition at its core is very straight forward. I mean, if you study it as a science then it’s a complicated rabbit hole, but on the day to day level there are basic things to consider. If you know a little bit about those basic things, and practice a little bit around those things, then that little bit of knowledge can go a long way to nailing your nutrition.
A substantial portion of the health and fitness industry like to sell nutrition as something extremely complex, you need to do X, you need to take Y. Eat this way or you won’t lose weight etc etc... The truth is, a lot of that is leveraged on the complex science, which is always trying to answer a very specific question, and that question is very often not related to your day to day nutrition. More often (and especially with supplements) science is taken out of context or over blown to try and sell a product or system.
Regardless of what is going on with research and science, the day to day application of nutrition really boils down to five things.
In this two part article and throughout future posts I’ll try to break these five things down and explain them, providing some simplified information and some tips to help your daily nutrition.
Let’s cover this in order of importance…
Calories are the foundation of any diet. Scientifically speaking, calories are a unit of heat energy - in fact 1 calorie is the amount of energy it take to heat 1 gram water by 1 degree Celsius! In nutrition, calories are used to describe the amount of potential heat energy present in the food we eat, and that’s the first point that can be a little confusing…
You see, on food labels the calorie content in listed per Kilo Calorie (kcal)…That’s 1000 calories, but before you start to worry that your 100kcal salad has over shot your daily needs by an unholy amount, understand that in every day conversation kcal’s are referred to simply as “Calories” (written with a big C). A bit strange I know, but bare that in mind when you’re reading around and listening to people talking Calories - they are referring to kcals.
So why are Calories SO important? They are an excellent surrogate measure for the amount of food you require each day to maintain your weight. If you eat fewer calories than you need (and thus less food than you need) you lose weight, if you eat more calories than you need (more food than you need) you gain weight. This is your energy balance.
A few things can influence how many Calories you will need on a day to day: the amount of general movement; exercise; sleep; stress; ability to absorb food and hormonal status are a few examples, but the overall concept of eating too much, or too little food will cause a change in weight.
So with everything brought right down to Calories and energy balance you have one standard measure to judge how much you are eating. You don’t even need to count them in a lot of cases, if you would prefer not to.
Here are a few examples of some diet trends and how they cause weight loss:
Keto dieting? You may have heard a lot about this one - it works for a lot of people, I in fact have eaten that way myself and used it with clients BUT it works for weight loss because you just cut out a major Calorie source (carbohydrates).
5:2 or fasting? Again, this can be very effective if it suits you, but it works because you didn’t consume calories (food!) during that period - that’s a hefty chunk of energy you just chopped out of your week!
This last one’s a little old school…have you ever been on a low fat diet? Well, you guessed it, you cut out those calories… from fat!
It won’t matter which strategy you use whilst dieting, when the Calorie reduction is equal, they all result in weight loss. The reality is if you gain weight on 3000 Calories (kcals) it doesn’t matter if that comes from jelly babies or olive oil. If it’s a higher amount of food (Calories) than your body needs you will store it. That is why they are the the single most important factor when dieting - which method you use is largely personal preference.
But not all calories are created equal! I hear you cry… well, a calorie is a calorie. It’s a fixed unit of measure. What is unequal is how the body uses the nutrients associated with those calories, which leads on to the second most important factor…
Macronutrients aka ‘macro’s’ are the primary components of the food we eat. Protein, carbohydrate and fat. Each of these has a calorific value attached per gram as follows:
Fat 9kcals /gram
The total amount of each of these nutrients makes up your calorie and food intake for the day.
The body uses each of these macro’s differently in order to maintain our organ and hormonal systems, provide structure and raw energy for metabolism and movement. It doesn’t use all of them all of the time to generate energy, however how they are digested and used can influence your calorie needs.
Protein is a fantastic example of this.
The primary functions of protein is to maintain and build organs and muscles, contribute to optimum immune function, provide raw materials for enzymes and the chemical reactions going on with in the body and helps keep your body pH and fluid balance in check.
It’s used to a lesser extent as fuel for active muscles and certain organs, you get a thermic effect from eating protein, where your daily calorie needs are increased slightly as it takes more energy to digest, but it is rare for the body to try and use protein as a primary fuel source.
Carbohydrate on the other hand…
Is easily converted and utilised for fuel by the body. It also facilitates hydration and hormonal production. Fibre is also a carbohydrate and has a whole host of beneficial biological activities that will be covered in a separate blog post, but fibre absolutely contributes to the benefits of consuming carbohydrates.
Lastly, but certainly no less important, are fats and oils.
Like carbs, fats and oils are used as fuel. But they also contribute to cell integrity, joint function, steroid hormone production and immune health.
These functions outside of energy production help to illustrate why taking macronutrients into account is important. Where the calories come from is almost as important as how much, particularly for general health.
This theme of where the calories come from is continued when we talk about the next level of importance.
As we discussed above, macronutrients contribute to the continued function and wellbeing of the body. They also deliver a wide range of vitamins, minerals and beneficial compounds know as micronutrients.
The body needs these in small amounts (hence ‘micro’) but they have a large impact on the health and longevity of an organism by having beneficial effects throughout the body. Just a few examples of micronutrients and their uses include; as antioxidants (e.g. vitamin C and E), cofactors to help enzyme function (zinc and copper) and as essential components in hormone production (iodine). There are many, MANY more micronutrients that help all sorts of processes your body does to survive every day.
The requirement for micronutrients illustrates the need to consider where your macronutrients come from, ideally sourcing the majority from a wide variety of meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and oils to provide as wider range of micronutrients as possible.
The combination of consuming adequate calories from a favourable ratio of micronutrient containing macro's contributes greatly to the health of a person.
These three factors calories, macronutrients and micronutrients are largely aimed at health and weight management. In part two we shift focus a bit, concentrating on two factors with more emphasis on optimisation and performance: nutrient timing and supplementation.
If you are interested in learning more about nutrition or using a nutritionist to help guide you through, drop a message into the comments box or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.