Monday 23 December 2013

Week 52 Nutrition Tip: Principle-Driven Nutrition

Is your nutrition built on a solid
foundation of proven principles?
Have you ever  been confused by nutrition? If so, it is time for that to end! Throughout this year, I have provided you with 51 tips and habits to help you progress to better and better nutrition. Well, this week is the final week of the 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You series, and I have one more tip for you. This tip is the most important nutrition tip I could ever give you - be principle-driven in your nutrition. Here are 6 principles that will guide your eating for the rest of your life. Follow these principle and you will transform your health, performance and body composition.

As a strength coach and professor, I often get the following question:
"What do you think about (fill in the blank here with some popular fitness or diet fad)?"
With nutrition, the popular diet might be: Atkins, Zone, South Beach, Eat Right for Your Blood Type, Paleo, Raw Food, Vegetarian, Vegan,  Weight Watchers, Mediterranean Diet, Warrior Diet, Lean Gains, Eat-Stop-Eat or whatever other title has made the best-seller list.

My answer to this question is always the same:
"Well, here are some things I like about the diet (then I list them) and here are some concerns I have with the diet (then I list these)." 
The way I generate my answer to this question is always the same way: I simply put the diet up against solid nutritional principles and see how it stacks up. I have a strong feeling that I'm not the only one who does this. Throughout my career, I have noticed that you never see a top trainer just blindly following some fad exercise program. Nor do you see a top nutritionist blindly follow some fad diet. Instead, the best people in each field develop their own methods based on their experience, available research and solid proven principles while the masses blindly move from one fad to the next.

Methods vs. Principles
If you want to be successful in anything, you have to keep your focus on the principles.
“As to the methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
This same concept has been put into a cute (but very true poem):
"Methods are many, principles are few. 
Methods always change, but principles never do." Coach Ray Wilkerson 
When it comes to diet books, it is all about coming up with some new way of eating that appears unique and revolutionary to the masses. However getting real results with your nutrition program is not about following the latest best-selling diet book, but by allowing your eating decisions and habits to be guided by these fundamental nutrition principles:

Eat Natural
When giving nutrition lectures, I have often told people that if I had only 2 seconds for a nutrition lecture, I would simply say, "eat natural." I then go on to tell them that if they applied that one principle it would radically transform their health, performance and body composition. The late Jack LaLanne summed it up well - "If man made it, don't eat it." As we look throughout the history of the food industry, we repeatedly see that when we refine, hydrogenate, package, process, juice, color, sweeten, genetically modify and preserve foods, we repeated hurt our health, body composition and performance.

Build your nutrition methods on this principle and avoid most foods that come in packages The more setps away a food is from its original state the worse it usually is for you. Instead, emphasize vegetables, whole fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats and good carbs (e.g. yams, whole grains and beans - as tolerated) and you will do well. While supplementation may seem to go against this principle, I still believe that there are times when adding a few quality supplements (e.g. protein powder, vitamin D) to your natural foods can be helpful.

Note: while this is a very solid principle, it can be carried to the extreme and that can lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions. This can make it difficult for the hard-training individual meet nutritional requirements. Also, becoming obsessed with healthy eating can become unhealthy and lead to an eating disorder called orthorexia which can become destructive to your physical, emotional and social well-being.

While the idea of extreme diets is fantastic for selling diet books it is not helpful or healthy. Avoid unnecessarily restricting certain macronutrients (i.e. protein, fat or carbs). While we all may need different ratios of these, we all will benefit from having some of each. Also, avoid unneeded restrictions in certain foods unless you know you need to. For example I do not eat dairy (other than whey protein) because I am highly intolerant to it. I know that consuming milk or dairy products is not healthy for me. I also do not eat a lot of grains because I honestly feel better when I do not. However, these decisions are based on personal experimentation and careful observation of what works best for me - not on trying to blindly follow a popular diet such as the Paleo Diet.

As with exercise, one of the real "secrets" to effective nutrition is staying consistent with it over the long haul. Despite periods of solid eating, many people fail make their desired health, body composition or performance improvements because they are constantly jumping on and off the diet bandwagon. Better a solid year of "good" eating than a year of infrequent "perfect" eating.

I love veteran strength coach Dan John's wisdom on diets. When he has people ask him which diet is best, he tells them they all work. Just pick one and stick with it! While this may be a bit of an over-simplification, it helps to highlight this important principle. Just picking something reasonable and actually sticking to it is super important. For example, many people have lost weight using a variety of different diet plans. Doing something consistently is a key common ingredient in all successful weigh loss attempts.

Because of the principle of consistency, you must also apply the principle of progression. In a training context, this principle makes perfect sense. Imagine a newbie coming to the gym for the first time with a goal of a 400lb bench press. Would you load up the bar to 400lbs and then just start trying until you could do it? Oh course not. Rather, a smart person would start with the empty bar, learn proper technique and then gradually build up to the 400lb bench press. However, many people try to go from eating like a typical North American (e.g. bench pressing the empty bar) to a nutrition super-star (e.g. bench pressing 400lbs) over-night and it almost always results in failure.

As human beings, we can only handle so much change at one time. Rather than seeking to overhaul your nutrition overnight, seek to make small, gradual, consistent, sustainable changes. Forget about all the "3 weeks to ripped" diets. Instead, pick one simple change to make with  your eating habits and stick with it until it is normal. Then, repeat the process. Yes, this may result in slower progress in the short term, however this will add up to very impressive result over the long run that you will be able to enjoy for years!

The more I learn and the longer I coach, the more I realize that many training and nutritional debates can be solved with simply looking at the context. I can accurately answer almost any training or nutrition question with two words: "It depends." Every nutrition decision you make should be made in the context of your individual needs and goals. For example, during the low-carb craze, I mistakenly followed the advice of the low-carb diet promoters. Now if you are fairly sedentary and have an endomorph body type (one that stores fat easily), low carb eating can be very appropriate. However, I was young, training very hard and have an ectomorph body type (one that is naturally very skinny with a fast metabolism). For me, low carb eating was very inappropriate and caused me to rapidly lose a lot of hard-earned muscle. Always eat based on your needs and goals!

To further expand on the appropriateness principle, do not just consider needs and goals, but how your individual body responds to certain foods. One mistake I have made many times over the years is to try to blindly follow someone else's training program or diet plan. To be successful you have to follow these basic principles, but tailor the methods to you! In previous posts in this series, I provided the 1-2 Hour Test and 3 tests to help you test your nutrition. Follow these guidelines along with the principles explained above and you will be better able to individualize your eating.

The Bottom Line
Stay true to the principles listed above. Avoid getting side-tracked by the latest fad diet and always let your nutritional methods be dictated by these fundamental, high-mileage nutritional principles.

Well, that wraps up the 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You Series. Time to get back to training!

Below are the links to the other weekly habits in this series:

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