Nutrition is a touchy subject for a good reason. We’ve eaten stuff our whole lives, and it leads to personal habits and expectations about how folks should get their daily nutritional needs. Healthy eating is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but what works for one may not work for another.
As such, I won’t recommend one be-all, end-all form of nutrition. There’s no one way to eat healthy.
Instead, here are a few foundational ways to improve your overall nutrition and health. You can use these as building blocks for an amazing eating plan.
Calculate your caloric needs
Unfortunately, we can’t eat everything we want if we want to remain healthy. There’s a certain number of calories we burn each day depending on our activity level.
However, that number is typically a lot higher than expected. There’s a lot of ways to calculate calories — I personally recommend this calorie calculator — but the average sedentary 20 year old burns around 2200 calories each day.
A pound of weight loss equals about 3500 calories. If you’re plan is to lose weight, a healthy goal is around a pound each week, that's about a 500 to 1000 calorie deficit each day depending on the calories burnt.
Create this deficit through nutrition, not exercise. Exercise should supplement your nutrition habits, ensuring that your body can perform well using the energy it has. It shouldn’t be used to purposefully exhaust that energy.
After calculating your total caloric intake, calculate where those calories will come from. You want to account for all your basic needs — proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and so on.
It’ll all be a bit overwhelming at first, so take it slow. Gradually decrease or increase your caloric intake. Write down your nutritional needs step by step. It’ll take time, but you’ll get there eventually.
Take it slow and in stride. You’ll be a nutritional champ.
Eat whole foods
Calories aren’t American — they’re not all are created equal. The “eat big get big, eat small get small” attitude is unhealthy. It can lead to bad habits and even eating disorders.
When planning your nutrition, try to avoid artificial, processed calories. Examples of processed foods are canned meats, microwave dinners, store bought chips/crackers and deli meats.
Replace these calories with whole foods. These are foods in their natural state — fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, non-canned meats and tree nuts. These foods fill you up more and keep you full for longer.
Not all artificial foods are bad, though. Protein shakes and vitamin supplements are great ways to take in essential nutrients. Canned vegetables are great for long-term storage and easy access, most only have sodium additives so that they last longer.
For the most part, however, you want to avoid processed foods in favor of natural foods.
It’s no good to eat healthy if you don’t drink healthy. Hydration is a simple concept, but one that a lot of us have been mislead about due to blatant misinformation from drink marketing teams.
Water hydrates you. Sugary drinks, fruit juices, protein shakes, coffee, tea and any other beverages dehydrate you.
These drinks have a water base, but also have additives like sugar and sodium that actively absorb the much-needed hydration. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever drink them — though soda and fruit juice generally detract from your health due to an absurd amount of sugar — you should always balance this with an equal or greater intake of water.
Buy a cheap water bottle, or save a plastic one you’ve already used. Keep drinking water, and you’ll both feel and perform better.
Avoid deficiency diets (or any diet, really)
Good nutrition isn’t a fad that you follow for a few months and forget about once you look the way you want. We’re playing the long game — we want to be healthy forever.
Good nutrition is a habit and lifestyle choice that you follow throughout your entire life.
Nowadays, you hear about a lot of diets based around depriving your body of basic nutrition. You may hear that avoiding carbs will give you more energy or that cutting all fats will reduce body fat.
These diets are complete hokum. You will lose weight if the calories you eat are fewer than the calories you use each day and gain weight if the calories you eat are higher, not if you cut out so many carbs or fats or drink this special bottle of weight loss juice.
Unless you’re cutting artificial calories out of your diet — like refined sugar and processed meats — there’s no good in cutting out entire food groups.
In fact, most diets are bad in the end. They’re unhealthy because they encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.
The word ‘diet’ implies a temporary change to eating habits that’ll eventually end. Diets vilify certain eating habits — eating a lot of fat, eating too many carbs, eating too few carbs.
Diets encourage you to look at food as the enemy, as something you must fight against to stay healthy and look the way you want. This is unhealthy and untenable. It can even lead to eating disorders and serious body image issues.
That being said, if you follow a diet like keto or body for life and you’re certain you can maintain that diet throughout your lifetime, then by all means continue.
Otherwise, just stop.
Find and eat healthy foods that you enjoy
Now, take deep breath and look at your eating habits. Note your unhealthy habits and the foods you eat too much/too few of and make a plan to compensate using whole foods and doctor recommended vitamin supplements.
You don’t have to force yourself to eat salad 24/7. Explore whole foods. Find vegetables, fruits, nuts and meats that you enjoy. Plan around these foods and keep exploring. Find healthy foods that you like.
I, for instance, love sweet potatoes and couscous. They’re great carbs that I can cook in multiple ways. I think they taste amazing, but you might not. You may prefer brown rice, which I personally despise. That’s okay. Find what works for you.
In fact, you don’t have to completely cut yourself off from unhealthy food. As long as you limit your pizzas, your doughnuts, your sweets and your cheat meals and don’t eat them every day, you can still treat yourself.
However, if you find healthy food that you genuinely like, every meal will feel like a cheat meal because you’re not depriving yourself of good food.
Don’t discourage yourself
You’re trying to eat healthy for your entire life, but sometimes you have bad day. Some days you’ll eat too much, some days too little. Some days you’ll go overboard. This is okay.
We all have bad days. It comes with the territory. Keep your head up. As long as you keep making real effort to be healthy, you’ll make it.
If you have a bad day, acknowledge that you can start again tomorrow. You can do it.