10 Jan What is Good Nutrition? Part I
“I eat pretty healthy.”
Many of my clients are already pretty health-conscious when they find me. This is the response given when asked about their diets during our initial meetings. I have seen it worn with pride, despite glaring indications to the contrary.
My clients come to me seeking a path towards less body fat, more muscle, more energy, improved health, and to just feel better. If their nutrition is so “healthy,” why is it they complain of such unhealthy problems?
Could their nutrition actually be that good, but they’re just not getting the results they’re after?
As Dr. John Berardi likes to say, sure it’s possible but it isn’t likely.
Their “healthy eating” is based on loose and variable definitions. Without a stable framework, how will you ever know if your nutrition habits are on the right track?
What does “eating healthy” even mean?
Is it eating low-fat? Low-carb? Low-calorie?
Is it the absence of junk foods, or is it the prevalence of nutrient-dense foods?
Is it eating local organic? Vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo-pescatarian?
Is it The Mediterranean Diet or The Zone Diet?
Rest assured. One by one, the next five articles will answer the question, “what is good nutrition?”
Enough questions. Let’s get to some answers.
Principles of Good Nutrition
#1. Good nutrition controls energy balance.
What is energy?
You might be familiar with the common practice of calorie counting.
Calories are a unit of energy that food provides us to perform countless chemical reactions inside our bodies. We absorb calories from the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in the food we eat.
Most of our daily calories come from food, but we also keep a stock of this energy source in our own body tissues, particularly body fat. As a protective mechanism, this stored energy is reserved for times of need (like starvation). For this reason stored calories are used secondarily to incoming calories from food. Special situations like intense exercise will create a demand for this secondary pool of energy.
- food gives us energy, measured as calories
- we store calories in our tissues, especially body fat
- stored calories remain stored until our body senses a need for them
So, we have energy both stocked away and coming in every day during meals with family and friends. Where does it go from there?
Bills, Bills, Bills.
Our bodies have three major types of energy costs, and we can use an analogy of living in a home to help us understand.
To keep your home in your name, you need to pay either rent or mortgage payments each month.
Few things in life are free, and the body is no exception. To have made it this far in life, you’ve had to pay rent to your body in the form of energy and food just to keep it alive. Sure, there were ups and downs, but you’ve always paid your dues. Your body performs a lot of activity behind the scenes like digesting food, pumping blood around your body, breathing, managing your body temperature, and many other amazing processes. It does these things automatically.
If you were lying comatose in a hospital bed at a controlled temperature, this energy requirement represents the minimum “rent” you’d need to be paying to keep ownership of that body. This is known as your Resting Metabolic Rate.
Energy COST #1: Your monthly rental payments are your RESTING metabolic ratE (RMR).
Back to our home analogy, our otherwise useless shell of a house-like structure needs some lights and plumbing to turn it into a home. We’ll need to be able to drink water, wash the dishes, wash ourselves, and see the floor at night as we do these things.
These additional requirements are your monthly utility payments.
Whether a home or a body, it isn’t very useful if it can’t do anything. A house needs to provide a livable space for those living in it. A body needs to move around, to think and to play. You have calls to make, you need to run to the store, you’ve got things to do! When your body leaves its comatose hibernation, it requires energy to get out of bed, to walk around, to think, to decide.
Energy COST #2: Your monthly utility bills are known as non-exercise physical activity, or NEPA.
If you went out on vacation for a few weeks and use less water and electricity, you would owe less to the utility companies. The body’s NEPA needs are similar in that you pay for what you use. If you do less with your body, you owe less energy.
Finally, we have one more energy cost to satisfy.
Our house is paid for this month, and the lights are on. It’s almost a home you’d want to live in. It’s nice, but deep down you think the windows and counters are old-fashioned. And it could really use some new furniture.
These are home improvements, and they cost money.
Our body’s remaining energy needs for “home improvement” are determined by training and recovery demands. To train at a level above your daily activities, you must spend energy to fuel that training. This could be a skill practice in golf (low energy demand) or a rigorous high-volume training session for bodybuilding or triathlon (high energy demand).
Just like home improvement projects, both training and recovery demands are highly variable depending on whether you’re a couch potato or a powerlifting triathlete.
Buying a new sofa is an exciting upgrade. Fortunately, it’s a pretty simple one-time transaction, like an easy skill practice or moderate training session.
But to replace those counters and kitchen windows, you’ll have to get the whole kitchen remodeled. This is a costly process. It is both time- and labor-intensive, and you won’t be able to use the kitchen to full capacity until it’s finished.
Beyond the training session itself, the mark of stress left on the body by the training must be recovered. This could take hours or days, depending on the severity of the training session. The short 20-minute golf practice may only require an hour to recover completely. But the 2-hour heavy bodybuilding session may require the next five days or more.
Your kitchen remodeling is the hardest of training sessions. The cost is large, but you know a brand new modern kitchen with all the bells and whistles is worth it, just like leaner, stronger muscles.
Understand that the more demanding the training session, the more energy required to recover in the days that follow.
Energy COST #3: Home improvements are your body’s training and recovery demands.
- RMR: our bodies need energy to perform the basic functions of life (our body’s rent/mortgage)
- NEPA: we need additional energy to live productive lives…and to fidget (our body’s utility bills)
- we need energy to fuel training and competition (minor home improvements)
- we need even more energy to recover from hard training and competition (major home improvements)
I know you’re interested in improving your body somehow, whether to make it bigger, smaller, or just higher quality. By this point you might be wondering how future goals might factor into those energy balance needs.
Returning one last time to our home analogy, quality comes at a price. If you want a bigger home that is higher quality (more lean muscle), you will have to pay more for it. Building more muscle requires more energy.
If you want to downsize your home, you will have to pay less (although I don’t think any seller would be upset if you paid more). If you want a body with less fat tissue, it’s going to require less energy than your present state of energy balance.
Now that we have the background information, it’s time to answer the big question.
What is energy balance?
Armed with a basic understanding of needs, let’s draw the equation.
Energy OUT = Energy IN
Taking this a step further, we can expand this equation with the variables we discussed.
Energy OUT = RMR + NEPA + TRAIN
Energy IN = FOOD INTAKE + STORED ENERGY
RMR + NEPA + TRAIN = FOOD INTAKE + STORED ENERGY
If ENERGY OUT is greater than ENERGY IN, you’re going to be losing weight from somewhere.
If ENERGY IN is greater than ENERGY OUT, you’re going to be gaining weight from somewhere.
You’ve likely heard of this concept referred to as “calories in versus calories out.”
It’s a pretty accurate and fundamental truth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Not so simple: The Counting Conundrum
Our bodies are beautifully refined products of eons of evolution. They are a little more sophisticated than what can be represented by a simple math equation.
You see, energy balance is dynamic. It changes.
It changes depending on how your body is responding to the stressors of its environment. It adjusts its energy requirements to match how much food is (or isn’t) coming in. The body will do all of this without telling you about it.
Have you ever been sick and just not felt like eating? Have you gone through periods where your appetite just seems ravenous for some reason?
These are just minor examples of how your body is always making adjustments. Understand that energy balance is imperfect and far more complex than just counting, adding, or subtracting. You may be able to estimate the energy content of the food you’re eating and loosely estimate the energy used during exercise, but what next? The critical variables of what the body actually does with that energy will remain a mystery.
- counting can be a useful tool to increase awareness, but for most people it’s not necessary
When it comes right down to it, if you don’t already have the body you desire, your nutrition simply isn’t good enough.
Now that you know the first principle, how good is your nutrition?
Does your nutrition control energy balance?
If not, it might be time to consider a change.
If this article was helpful, but you just don’t quite know what to do next, get the help you need with individualized coaching.
Stay tuned to learn the next four tenets of good nutrition…