Nothing in wellness sparks more debate than nutrition. Everyone’s got a “diet” that they believe in. There is also so much disagreement about what’s healthy to eat and what is not that it makes my head spin (and I’m a healthcare professional who studies this stuff).
Rather than engage with the zealots on a diet debate, I would prefer to present you with what I consider to be universal principles of healthy eating. Practical nutrition tips that even the most fanatical member of a food tribe would say “yeah that makes sense.”
The reason that diets don’t work is because we are all unique individuals and any one nutrition plan may not be the right fit. We have different food preferences, schedules, budgets and biologies that dictate which nutrition plans are sustainable and effective for us.
Without further delay let’s dive into 5 practical nutrition tips for wellness.
1. It's a Not a Diet, It's a Lifestyle
This sounds stupid. Who cares about the words? Our brain cares. The moment you label your eating as a “diet” you're setting yourself up for failure. The word “diet” implies something temporary, difficult and unsustainable. Why? Because that’s what we are programmed to believe living in the modern world. Because we’ve all tried a “diet” and it never works over the long term.
The most important step you can take when it comes to your nutrition is to play the long game. You will be eating food, hopefully, for the rest of your life. What you do over the course of 12 weeks as part of your “diet plan” to lose weight, is likely inconsequential. Why are there over 100 diets? Because there isn’t one “diet” that works for everyone, forever. Period end of story.
Instead, focus on the upcoming strategies to build a sustainable healthy eating habit. Tell yourself “I’m going to put healthy foods in my body because I’m a healthy person.”
Does this mean that you can’t ever eat a bowl of ice cream or a burger with fries? Of course not. We are all human beings with cravings. The notion of willpower is BS. The difference between healthy and unhealthy people is that healthy people limit the number of times they have a “treat”. Watch The Rock on social media. He eats clean 6 days a week and then enjoys an epic “cheat day” (can’t we call it a “treat day” instead? Cheating sounds like we’re doing something bad.)
What you consistently eat 6 days a week is more impactful than what you enjoy 1 day a week. The key is delaying gratification and then resuming healthy eating. The day you can tell yourself “not now but later” to that extra-cheese pizza is the day you’ve mastered control of your wellness.
2. Balanced Eating > Restrictive Eating
Listen, you can lose weight on any wacky diet. No arguments from me. However, if you’re focused on your overall health, then restricting major categories of food can present some challenges.
Is eating vegan healthy? Absolutely. But if you’re trying to build muscle/strength, a foundation for longevity, then you’re going to struggle to eat the requisite 1 g of protein per pound of body weight a day (yes you need that much protein if you’re lifting weights and building muscle).
On the flip side, a carnivore diet may help you lose weight. However, eliminating the antioxidants and fiber from fruits and vegetables is really not a good idea over the long term if you want to prevent heart disease and cancer (#1 and #2 killers worldwide).
There’s a lot of good to be taken when experts tell us to eat a rainbow. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors provides a wide range of nutrients. Proteins and fats are key components of muscle tissue and hormone production. Lastly, although we should limit sugar and processed foods, carbohydrates are our main source of energy and most people cannot sustain a ketogenic or very low carb diet indefinitely.
Balance is a key component of healthy eating.
3. Weight Loss = Calories In < Calories Out
Being a healthy weight is essential if you want to become more healthy. Now ideally we should be discussing body fat percentage as there are some muscular folks who are labeled “obese” when calculating BMI, however for simplicity sake I’ll be discussing weight. Weight loss is very simple. You must burn more calories on a daily basis than you consume. Period, end of story.
Now some caveats. There’s a limit to how many calories you can burn with exercise. Unfortunately there’s no limit as to how many calories you can consume. You cannot outrun your mouth. Being a healthy weight starts with limiting your calorie consumption. Stop telling me you're overweight because you don’t exercise. You’re overweight because you’re putting too much food in your mouth. #hardtruth.
When it comes to restricting calories you have 3 choices. You can restrict:
- Types of food you eat
- Times you eat
It’s your choice, but pick one. Limiting portions is challenging without the help of new weight loss medications like semaglutide. We’ve already discussed the potential pitfalls of restricting the types of food you eat. That’s why I’m a big fan of time-restricted eating (incorrectly labeled by some as intermittent fasting).
Time-restricted eating only limits the times you eat (when) instead of the foods you eat (what). I find the easy way to begin a time restricted eating schedule is to start with the time you usually eat dinner. Let’s say it’s 6 pm. Subtract 8 hours and this means you can start eating food at 10 am. This provides an 8-hour eating period followed by a 16-hour “fasting” period (also known as a 16:8 schedule).
During the 16 hours of fasting, your body will be forced to burn calories from your energy stores (glycogen in muscle/liver followed by fat in most people). Now here's a key detail: 16 hours of fasting means ABSOLUTELY ZERO FOOD. I once had a family member who after I described this eating strategy, went on to tell me, “oh I already do that . . . I wake up, have a cup of coffee, a banana and just a little toast . . . then nothing until lunch at noon.” SMH. Needless to say, that’s not time-restricted eating.
Regardless of your opinion on time-restricted eating, if you want to lose weight, then you must choose some form of caloric restriction. The math doesn’t lie.
4. Focus on Adding Healthy Foods Instead of Restricting "Unhealthy" Foods
Processed and ultra processed “foods” are killing us. The problem is that they are processed to be delicious. The food industry has got this stuff down to a science. They know the right ratio of fat to sugar that makes our brain and stomach race to the drive-through line. And they price the garbage (let’s stop calling it food) at an affordable cost for most people.
Given that society and human psychology are working against us, we have to use some Jedi mind tricks to overcome these challenges. One of my favorites is to focus on adding healthy whole foods, rather than trying to limit processed foods. If you fill up on salmon, roasted cauliflower, and tomatoes, then it’s harder to fit in a baked potato or french fries. Good luck downing a couple pancakes after eating 4 eggs, whole grain toast and an avocado.
As a side benefit, once you start eating whole foods on a regular basis, you’ll start finding processed foods taste like chemicals (which they have), and crave them less.
Now one exception to this rule, is you should focus on restricting your sugar intake. There’s some truth to the statement, “I always have room for dessert.” So even if you “fill up” on healthy foods there’s always room for a pint of ice cream. Nothing will derail a healthy lifestyle like regular sugar consumption.
5. Drink water, water and more water
Dehydration is a cause of many medical symptoms (headaches, constipation, muscle aches). It’s amazing how many ailments disappear when you substitute water for coffee, tea, soda, juice and booze. More importantly, it’s more difficult to overeat if you start each meal with a 20 oz glass of water.
But hands down the best benefit of water is that it should limit your consumption of sugary beverages. If sugar is evil, then liquid sugar is the devil reincarnated. I’ve had numerous patients lose 10-20 lbs in a matter of weeks simply by cutting out Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper.
While we are on the topic of beverages, if you’re struggling with weight loss then don’t ignore your evening glass of wine or can of beer. Alcohol packs on the calories, right before bed as we enter energy storage mode, and disturbs quality of sleep. Treat alcohol as a luxury to be enjoyed occasionally. Not as your daily routine.
My goal is for you to have a solid foundation of nutritional advice that you can start implementing today. Did you notice that with a few exceptions, I didn’t list a bunch of foods that you can or can’t eat. That’s because you can eat many different nutritious foods and enjoy your favorite “treats” while achieving your wellness goals.
We are killing ourselves with what we are eating. We must shift our paradigm and consider food to be the first medicine we put in our body. I’m on a mission to help as many people as possible achieve wellness and I wish you nothing but success on this journey.