There’s no substitute for knowledge when it comes to learning how to eat well for a lifetime. Learn the basics of food and nutrition, and you take a big step forward in taking control of your health and re-shaping your body composition. Give ownership, power to choices you make by being informed. Look at your array of food choices—often dizzying—with a rock-solid understanding of what you’re choosing to put in your body, how the choices you make all day long can add up to a balanced, energy and health boosting diet.
Macronutrients are protein, fat and carbohydrates. They provide your body with calories for energy, metabolism and growth. “Macro” simply means you’ll consume them in large amounts. I also include water in this category of large-block nutrients. Often overlooked, water is a vitally important component of a well-balanced diet.
• 10% – 35% of your total calories should come from protein
• Eat a serving of protein with each meal
• Combine your plant protein sources to create complete proteins
Protein is made up of amino acids. Your body needs protein to build and maintain muscle, repair tissues, reproduce cells, hormone function and to strengthen your immune system.
There is often confusion about identifying proteins, particularly in distinguishing between complete proteins and incomplete proteins, and learning how to combine them in a healthy, balanced diet.
• Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids. These high-quality proteins are easily digested and used by the body. Egg whites are considered the highest quality protein—they’re easy for our body to assimilate and they are the standard used in determining protein quality. In addition to egg whites, high-quality sources of protein include fish, chicken and turkey (white meat is better for you), lean beef, low-fat cottage cheese, tofu, and whey or soy protein powder.
• Incomplete, or complimentary, proteins are plant proteins that lack one or more of the essential amino acids. As a result, these proteins are less efficient and/or useful for your body. These proteins should be combined with other foods to create a complete protein. For example, combining beans with rice results in a complete protein that contains all essential amino acids. There are many easy, appealing ways to combine incomplete proteins to create a serving complete with all the essential amino acids: whole wheat bread and peanut butter, toast and a glass of milk, and whole-grain cereal with skim milk are a few examples.
• 45% – 65% of calories come from carbohydrates
• Eat a serving of high-fiber carbohydrate at every meal
• Avoid sugars and starchy carbohydrates: stay away from white foods like rice, bread and crackers
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary fuel source. Your muscles need carbs to function, as do your brain and central nervous system. Carbohydrates break down into sugar (glucose then glycogen) in your body. When your body gets the right carbohydrates, your blood-sugar levels will stabilize, which means you will feel less hungry and maintain even energy levels throughout the day. Carbohydrates are vegetables, fruits, grains, pastas, sweets and many dairy products, like milk and yogurt.
Variety is the key to a diet balanced with healthy carbohydrate sources. There are so many choices among healthy, high fiber, nutrient filled carbohydrates. The best carbohydrate sources are colorful vegetables, fruits and berries, and whole grains, and lowfat or nonfat yogurt. Diets high in fiber reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, as well as help reduce cholesterol.
Not all carbohydrates are alike, however. Starchy, sugar-filled carbohydrates cause your blood sugar levels to rise quickly. These foods will give you a temporary boost in energy. Once you’ve burned through that quick energy boost, your blood sugar levels will drop just as quickly. You’ll feel that familiar “crash,” mentally, physically and emotionally. You’ll start craving those same foods to lift your body from it’s low. Pretty soon you’re in a constant cycle of crashing and craving. To avoid this exhausting, unhealthy zig-zag, stay away from starchy and sugary carbs like white bread, white rice, crackers, cookies, cakes, pies, candy, sweetened yogurts and ice cream. Not only do these types of carbs send your blood sugar spiking, they also have little nutritional value and are considered “empty calories.”
• 20% – 35% of daily calories from healthy fat
• Include healthful fat in every meal
• Use fats sparingly—a little bit goes a long way
• Use vegetable stock, chicken stock, tomato juice or water, in place of oil, to help limit your fat intake
Fat often gets a bad rap, but the truth is fats are an important macronutrient in your diet. Fat provides fuel for you to burn. It provides a cushion for your organs, maintains cell membranes. Fat helps your body to absorb fat soluble vitamins, which in turn help give your skin a healthy glow. However, because fat acts as a flavor enhancer, it is all too easy to wind up with too much fat—and the wrong kind of fat—in your diet. When it comes to including fat in your daily diet, it needs to be the right fat in the right amounts.
Fat sources can be divided into three basic categories: healthy fats, fats to be used sparingly, and fats to avoid altogether.
• Healthy fats are unsaturated fats found vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish. The best sources of healthy fats are olive oil, canola oil, flax oil, nuts, fish oil and avocado.
• Fats to be used sparingly are saturated fats found in meats and dairy.
• Fats to avoid are trans fats that have been linked to a myriad of health problems, including heart disease. Trans fat is created by a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid, so that foods can last longer. Trans fat is found in processed foods like margarine, cakes, cookies, crackers, breads, snack foods, and even “health food bars.”
Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and trace elements found in foods. You need miniscule amounts of these nutrients to complete a healthful diet. If you’re eating a well-rounded diet with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, you should be getting the micronutrients your body needs. For this reason, I don’t prescribe supplements with the Outdoor Fitness program. A high-quality multi-vitamin is a good idea. Think of it as nutritional insurance—a way to fill in any gaps in your whole-food diet.