You may have heard the statement that calories in vs. calories out is all that matters. While there is some truth to this statement, it doesn't paint the full picture of what a healthy, sustainable diet looks like. In today's post we're talking about why food quality matters, and how to food plan/prep with high quality ingredients so that we can make delicious meals that we can derive both high quality nutrients and pleasure from while working towards our health & fitness goals. Check it out!
Resetting Our Bodies’ Receptivity to Food
Paleo, keto, carb cycling, vegan, vegetarian, high carb performance… the list goes on. Every single diet that is out there in the world has something about it that holds merit. Ask a certain subset of people and they will tell you why it has worked for them. Maybe it is the hormonal impact of keeping carbs low. Maybe it is the increase in quality from cutting out processed meats. Maybe it is the increase in carbohydrates that has supported your performance in the gym. But it is safe to say that there is NOT one diet out there that is BEST.
I have found it most impactful to stop looking at the differences, and instead start looking at the similarities. What are the characteristics of diets that tie them together? More importantly, what are the characteristics of our bodies and physiology that interact with our food that we all must honor and be mindful of for optimal health?
To answer these questions we first need to shift our view from looking at the specific type of diet one is following, to looking more at how we help our bodies to receive that food, process that food, assimilate that food, and get the most value from it. In my experience of exploring different diets, coaching individuals on nourishment, and helping people look better naked, perform better in their sport, or find a more balanced relationship with food, there are aspects that transcend all categories. This is our physiology and we CANNOT IGNORE IT.
The central theme here is, “Can your digestive system do its job correctly?” The complex process of getting energy and nutrients from a piece of food, through your mouth, down your esophagus, through your stomach, across the epithelial walls of your small intestine, into your bloodstream, and then circulated to the right part of your body to make you feel energized, help you look the way you want to look, and to keep your brain alert and focused when you want it to be, is a complex and delicate process.
What we all must contend with is that our modern way of living creates biological stresses that can negatively impact that digestive process if we aren’t mindful to avoid or mitigate them. The challenge is a process of bringing awareness to the areas we can control to try and optimize your digestive function. Follow any type of diet with poor digestion and you will have marginal to poor success. Follow that same diet with a healthy and robust digestive system, and now you have a chance to succeed.
Knowing the most common dietary and environmental stressors to your gut will allow you to make much more educated decisions around consumption. In the end it is up to you what you choose to put in your body. To get the most out of your diet you will want to take a critical look at where you come into contact with any of these stressors in your life and make an attempt to limit or eliminate them completely.
Common Food/Chemical Offenders
Items on this list can either create direct insult to the integrity of the gut wall or alter the microbiome negatively. Either mechanism will result in diminished digestive integrity.
- NSAIDS (Advil, Ibuprofen)
- All forms of refined sugar (table sugar, cane sugar, honey, syrup, agave, etc.)
- Gluten containing grains
- Food containing artificial coloring
- High FODMAP Foods – The acronym stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols. This class of foods can challenge some peoples’ digestion. If during your tracking you notice sensitivities, you may want to experiment with eliminating some or all of the foods on this list for a time to see if it helps.
Common Behavioral Offenders
- Not enough diversity in your food – A diet lacking in a variety of different whole foods can result in a loss of gut flora diversity. This may have a number of negative health effects.
- Lack of prebiotics (fiber) in your diet – they are important for increasing healthy gut bacteria
- Not moving enough – Recent studies suggest that physical activity may also alter the gut bacteria, improving gut health.
- Cigarette Smoking – Cigarette smoking is also one of the most important environmental risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease
- Inadequate sleep – the gut also follows a daily circadian-like rhythm. Disrupting your body clock through a lack of sleep, shift work, and eating late at night may have harmful effects on your gut bacteria
- Too much stress for your body’s recovery capacity – stress, including from high-intensity training, can increase digestive sensitivity, reduce blood flow, and alter the gut bacteria
There is a good chance that at this point you have heard of some of the following diets: paleo, AIP (AutoImmune Protocol), low FODMAP, Whole 30, and keto. There are others out there that fall into this category of diet which can be labeled as low inflammatory. One of the underlying principles that connects these diet concepts is the fact that the foods that are encouraged, as well as the foods that are discouraged, are meant to limit the insult and injury to the digestive system. This is accomplished by either focusing on the removal of foods that are known to cause digestive distress, or by focusing on whole foods that our bodies evolved eating and likely have great tools in place to process.
What you won’t find in these diets are highly processed carbohydrates, sugars, and artificial foods. They generally are lower carbohydrates diets. I don’t think you need to adhere to a low carb diet in order to have good gut health by any means. I just want to point out that foods that have high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates in them are often processed grains or have added refined sugars in them, which are definitely known to create digestive distress and negatively impact the microbiome.
Start With One
If fully avoiding common digestive stressors feels overwhelming, start with just one to avoid or reduce and go from there. Track and see how you feel, and add on as you feel confident to do so. Something is better than nothing!
How to Plan & Prepare High Quality Meals
I’ve been asked many times about some of my favorite healthy recipes. The truth is that a large majority of the time I don’t use recipes. Instead I focus on ingredients when prepping and building my meals by using the 5-ingredient meal concept.
The key to this concept is keeping our meals simple by only including 5 ingredients or less. Simplifying our meals in this way, we can easily plan & prep healthy meals with high quality ingredients. More importantly, simplifying our meals makes our food much easier to digest and allows our gut to heal and perform at an optimal level.
Make a list of all the ingredients you plan to eat for the next 5-7 days. When making your list, variety is key so it can be helpful to follow these guidelines:
Purchasing & Prepping
Once you have your list of ingredients it’s time to go purchase & prep them. Make sure to stick to your list when grocery shopping with the only exception being purchasing any dry spices/herbs, vinegars, and mustards you might want to use to add flavor to your foods.
3-5 different proteins
5-10 different vegetables and fruits
3-5 different carbohydrates
3-5 different fats (cooking oils included)
Once purchased, set some time aside to get all of your ingredients prepped and cooked. Although this may take a couple hours out of your day, it will pay dividends in the time and effort you will save throughout the week. With all of your ingredients cooked in bulk you can easily store them and pull them out as needed to build your meals.
HOT TIP: To add flavor to your meals try seasoning/marinating your proteins or making simple homemade dressings and sauces with some of your fat sources to add as toppings to your meals.
There you have it! I hope this post gives you a better understanding of how your food quality impacts your ability to lose weight, build muscle, and improve your athletic performance. Give the 5-ingredient meal concept a try and let us know how it effects your diet! If you're interested in learning more about nutrition or would like help in developing good nutritional habits to help you reach your goals, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.