One of the questions that I get asked the most is some kind of variation on ‘Sarah, what should I eat?’
Whether it’s ‘What diet should I follow?’, ‘What do you think of this latest diet?’, ‘Is carb/protein/fat bad for me?’ or ‘What’s the healthiest way to eat?’ ultimately they’re all asking the same thing – ‘Sarah, what should I eat?
Let’s start at the beginning. Nutrition can be seen as the foundation for so many reasons – health, energy and weight loss are all underpinned by what you eat. However when looking at ‘What should I Eat’ the short answer is there isn’t a one size fits all answer. It depends on where you are starting from, what your goal is, what your lifestyle is like and how your body reacts. EveryBODY (pun intended) is different. I know this can be hard to hear. Humans, tend to love certainty. This means that the latest fad diet which promises fast results if you do XYZ is SO appealing! Unfortunately though our bodies aren’t all the same. What might work for your friend might not work for you, BUT that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way through this.
I know it seems like almost every day the newspapers are suggesting Fat is bad! No Carb is bad! No Protein is bad! No it’s Sugar! and this is really confusing. Following the latest fad diet, no matter how convincing it may sound, is almost certainly not the answer. Going super low calorie or low carb may give you some short term gains but is unlikely to have lasting benefits. It might not be groundbreaking but the key really is moderation.
If you want the detail read on otherwise jump to the conclusion at the bottom for the headline.
Quick and Dirty Nutrition Lesson
Let’s start with a quick and dirty lesson on nutrition. All our food is made up for 3 main elements, or macro-nutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Protein – protein is essential for the body to operate, it’s the building blocks of all cells including muscle, skin, even hair. You may have heard of essential amino acids. They also are very satisfying and keep us fuller for longer. Good sources of protein are meat, fish and eggs. Read more on how to get in more protein here.
Fat – fat, although it sometimes gets bad press, is also essential for the body to operate. You may have heard of essential fatty acids. Yes too much of the wrong fat can be bad for you, but you definitely need to eat good fats. Good sources are nuts, olive oil and avocado. Read more on good fats here.
Carbohydrates (or carbs or starches) – these are used for energy and whilst are not essential for the body in the same way as fat and protein are it is still important to get adequate carbohydrates for your body. Good sources are vegetables and lower sugar fruits such as berries and apples. Read more on the best carbohydrates here.
This is all well and good but how do you decide on the best diet for you? What proportion of calories should come from each of the macro-nutrients? Now this is where your goals, your lifestyle and your body come in.
What is your goal?
One of the first things to ask yourself is what is your goal. What you want to achieve will determine what the ideal diet will look like for you. So get clear. Do you want to lose weight? Train for a sporting event? Be more healthy? The ideal nutrition for someone trying to lose weight would look very different from someone who is training for an elite event.
For me it was to be more healthy and to have the best body I could without huge sacrifice.
What is your lifestyle like?
This is critical. There is no point in me saying that I’m going to eat totally differently to my family for example. Preparing two meals every night is not sustainable unless you have a live in chef! Likewise there is no point in saying I’m going to make a meal every night with the best ingredients I can buy if you travel lots with work. You need to make it work for YOU! Ask yourself how can you make the nutrition plan that fits your goals also fit your lifestyle? If you can’t see yourself eating in this way in 5 years time then you’re on a diet and might as well give up now. A perfect plate isn’t perfect if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle.
As you can see there is no one answer but as a rule of thumb the following 5 points are a good starting point for everyone:
– 1 Eat more real food: if it has ingredients you can’t pronounce or has a unexpectedly long shelf life it’s probably not good for you. Likewise be wary of foods which claim to be Low Fat, Diet, Low Sugar or Healthy. They might be, but read the labels carefully as often the fat or sugar has been replaced by chemicals.
– 2 Eat quality protein in every meal: unlike other nutrients protein isn’t stored by the body therefore you need to eat it regularly and ideally with every meal
– 3 Increase your vegetables: your mum probably told you to eat your greens and she’s right. Eat more veg! Preferably in every meal.
– 4 Eat adequate quality carbohydrate: now this is one of the hardest parts to get your head around and I will talk more about it in weeks to come but the amount of carbohydrate you need will depend on your body and your goals. Unless you’re an athlete you’re probably eating too much of the wrong carbohydrate. The majority of your carb should come from vegetables (no, potatoes aren’t veg, sorry!) and low sugar fruit such as berries and apples. How much you need in addition to this will vary but if you’re not doing lots of exercise I recommend starting with 5-10 bites per meal of quality carbohydrate eg potatoes, rice, beans or whole-grains. If you find that this doesn’t keep you satisfied you can always increase it by a few bites. This is where you need to listen to your body and tweak until you find what works for you.
– 5 Eat less sugar: The majority of people eat far too much sugar. It’s really easy to do so without even realising as sugar is ‘hidden’ in places you wouldn’t expect e.g. bread and wholegrain cereals are often quite high in sugar
A really simple way to approach this is to ensure that each of your meals follows this simple rule of thumb. Start by filling half of your plate with vegetables, salad or low sugar fruit. With the other half of the plate, fill two thirds of the plate with protein and the other third with 5-10 bites of carbohydrate. As I’ve said above this HAS to work for YOUR goals and lifestyle so if for example you eat your evening meal as a family and want to be able to eat the same as your family maybe you have all of your bites of carbohydrate at dinner and ensure your breakfast and lunch are just veg, low sugar fruit and protein.
Check out my recipes for some ideas.
But Sarah, this sounds like a low carb diet, high protein diet and you said earlier not to go low carb?
This depends on your definition of low carb/high protein. The average diet in the Western world is now low in quality protein and high in low quality carbohydrates (particularly sugars) and low in fruit and veg. So whilst this may seem low carb it is actually well balanced and getting the majority of carbohydrates from good sources such as veg rather than from sugar.