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Nutrition Basics: Macros, Dieting, Myths, and More
Every year, it seems, someone comes out with a new diet or meal plan that promises to help you lose weight, build muscle, cure ailments, water your crops, and clear your skin.
Influencers and brands leap at these fad diets, doing what they can to back up any claims being made and turn a profit off of whatever trendy weight loss mechanisms they can.
As a result, a lot of nutrition nonsense has stuck around.
For example: what is your opinion on carbs? What connotations come to mind when you think about carbs?
A lot of Americans will have a gut reaction of assuming that carbs are bad, or at the very least that you should heavily moderate your carb intake. They often have the same opinion on fat. Years of trends like the Atkins Diet and Keto (Atkins' trendy nephew) have solidified these perceptions that are rooted more in marketing than fact.
So, let's clear up some confusion and take a look at some basic, foundational nutrition advice that's backed by research rather than gimmicks.
In THiS ARTICLE:
- The Basics of Nutrition
- Nutrition and Fitness FAQs
The Basics of Nutrition
When we talk about nutrition, we could go into a lot of nuance about what that actually entails. For the sake of simplicity, in this context, we're speaking purely about nutrition in terms of getting the nutrients your body needs through the foods that you eat.
Nutrients can broadly be broken down into two categories based upon the quantities of each nutrient that your body needs: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are the nutrients your body needs in large quantities. These are fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
Fats help with protecting vital organs, creating energy reserves, transporting fat-soluble vitamins throughout your body, and providing you with insulation. There are a variety of types of fats, including saturated and unsaturated. Chemically speaking, the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats has to do with the number of double bonds in the molecules; practically speaking, unsaturated fats are considered more healthful and can be found in nuts, fish, seeds, and dairy.
Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy production. Keto evangelists love to vilify carbohydrates, but they are far from dangerous. While it's true that many processed foods that often contribute to a caloric surplus are high in carbs, carbs are simply fuel and many dieticians recommend getting 45-60% of your daily caloric intake from carbohydrates.
Alongside being your body's primary source of energy, carbohydrates are also helpful for mental alertness and muscle development, as they spare proteins from being broken down in energy production instead of lending themselves to muscle and tissue repair. Carbohydrates are found in grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, and dairy.
The macronutrient that often gets the lion's share of attention in the wellness world is protein. Proteins are vital for organ and tissue health; are involved in metabolic, transport, and hormone systems; and they makeup enzymes that regulate your metabolism.
Protein is found in meat, fish, dairy, eggs, soy products (like tofu), nuts, and legumes. While animal products often have the highest concentration of protein per ounce, consuming adequate protein on a plant-based diet is totally possible.
How Much Do I need of Each Macronutrient?
The recommended quantities you should be consuming of each macronutrient will depend upon your goals, physiological needs, and lifestyle factors. When in doubt, consult a medical professional.
Generally speaking, you can use a macro calculator like this one to generate ballpark figures:
The micronutrients you need are significantly more numerous than the macronutrients you need, and we won't go into each nutrient in detail.
That said, micronutrients can be broken down into a few broad categories depending upon how you look at them. We'll organize them in terms of water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals.
Vitamins are organic substances, meaning they come from plants or animals. Minerals are inorganic, meaning they come from soil, water, and crystalline structures (aka yummy health rocks) and are then absorbed by your body when you consume them.
Whether something is water-soluble or fat-soluble refers to how it's broken down and carried through your body. Some substances will dissolve in the water that's in your body and be absorbed. Others won't and require fatty acids or fat cells to be broken down.
The primary micronutrients we need are:
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Folic Acid
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
There are other trace minerals that can be present in your diet as well, but if we included all of them, this list would go on for pages. Instead, we highlighted the most prominent ones.
Most micronutrients are going to be present in varying concentrations in greens, vegetables, fruits, tubers, grains, meat products, nuts, yeast, herbs, and fungi (like mushrooms). TL;DR– Eat your veggies, kids.
Calories probably deserve their own article, but I want to touch on them in this section on nutrition because they are one of the most often misapplied and misunderstood elements of nutrition.
When we discuss calories, we're often using the term colloquially to refer to kilocalories, which are units of energy. 1 kilocalorie, or kCal, is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1-degree celsius.
What we consume has a caloric value, which is to say that our bodies break it down into its constituent parts to be used for energy.
We often talk about calories and counting calories in terms of weight loss or weight gain. When your body takes in more calories than it can use, the excess energy is stored in fat cells, resulting in weight gain. When your body takes in fewer calories than it usually uses at your base metabolic rate, energy is extracted from the stores in your fat cells, resulting in weight loss.
This is often misapplied as we often assume that high-calorie foods are bad and low-calorie foods are good. This assumption is built on the faulty premise that weight loss should be our primary concern.
Caloric density is net neutral. If a food has a high or low-calorie count does not matter as long as your body is getting the nutrients it needs and sufficient caloric intake to maintain metabolic processes. Because our culture is very diet-focused, we often assume that our caloric intake needs to be well below our base metabolic rate so that we can lose weight.
Eating too few calories, it should be noted, has significant negative consequences for our overall health and wellness. For folks who are in a position where weight loss is doable, a slight caloric deficit over a longer period of time will have much better, more sustainable results than short-term crash dieting.
Speaking of which...
In the simplest terms possible, your diet refers to the food that you eat and drinks that you drink.
Often, we assume that the term diet refers to the act of dieting– the intentional food consumption choices that we make. Dieting often carries with it a connotation of specific outcomes, such as losing weight, building muscle, performing at our peak in a physical event, or otherwise limiting our food intake to a specific subset of foods (e.g. having a vegan diet).
Diet trends and red flags
Because diets are often associated with outcomes, there are dozens of specific types of diets that have been created for specific outcomes.
There are health-specific diets that are physician or dietician-recommended for specific medical conditions. For example, a person with celiac disease will be on a gluten-free diet. Patients with suspected ulcerative colitis or Chron's Disease will be advised to consume specific foods that are less likely to agitate their needs.
Medical diets aside, the most common type of diet that we hear about are diets for weight loss. In the United States, we've predominantly moved away from a food pyramid mentality and into one that's focused on aesthetic outcomes. Again, that probably deserves an entire article, but for the purposes of this primer, we'll focus on how these diets work and why you should be cautious with fad diets.
Fad diets are often built upon restrictive eating in one form or another. It's usually going to be dressed up in flowery language, but ultimately it's going to come down to restrictive eating in one form or another.
Diets like Atkins, Keto, and Paleo are based on cutting out or significantly limiting your consumption of certain types of foods. The foods that these diets cut out are often foods that are highly calorie dense– namely foods that are high in carbohydrates. These foods are cut out (sometimes entirely) and usually replaced with fats, proteins, or voluminous low-calorie foods (such as leafy greens). Because these diets shift individuals away from staple foods and eliminate high-calorie processed foods, they generally create a caloric deficit.
Trendy diets like intermittent fasting, Weight Watchers, Noom, and the slow carb diet function similarly. Rather than entirely eliminating food groups from your diet, they place restrictions on the portion sizes you consume or the timeframe in which you consume them. Again, this will generally result in a caloric deficit for most people, thereby resulting in weight loss.
Understanding Caloric Deficits
As mentioned, having a caloric deficit will result in weight loss. For better or worse, weight loss is a primary concern for a lot of individuals who are starting a fitness or wellness routine, so we want to make a few things really clear about weight loss and caloric deficits.
Overly-restrictive dieting and crash dieting that causes a significant calorie deficit are dangerous.
We want to be super clear about this because even when these behaviors result in fairly quick weight loss, they are also:
- Unsustainable. They lead to what is referred to as "yo-yo dieting" in which you're stuck in a cycle of losing weight and quickly gaining it back.
- Contributing factors to binge eating and an unhealthy relationship to food. Restrictive dieting often leaves us with strong, sometimes overpowering cravings. Similar to them being unsustainable, this can trigger periods of binging and restricting.
- Potentially harmful. Your body needs calories. It needs fats. It needs protein. It needs carbohydrates. It needs water. It needs micronutrients. When you cut out entire swaths of foods, you may be exposing yourself to agitating certain health conditions. Additionally, extreme caloric deficits over long periods of time will result in organ failure, hair loss, loss of bone density, and loss of muscle mass.
- Bad ways to learn about your body, nutrition, and how you best perform.
If you are trying to lose weight, you don't need to suddenly decrease your daily caloric intake by 500 calories or more. If you eat 2100 calories per day on average, reducing that to 2000 or 1900 average daily calories will result in gradual weight loss.
With calorie intake, weight loss, and fitness, gradual changes are dramatically more healthful than drastic ones. They're more sustainable and are easier for your body to adapt to. Even if they don't produce dramatic weight loss results right away, you're still continuously making progress in a way that you can sustain your lifestyle.
So What is The Best Diet For Getting In Shape?
If you haven't seen my answer coming, I'm going to assume you either jumped to this section to start or didn't read the previous sections too closely.
The best diet you can eat for getting in shape is whatever well-rounded diet you can eat consistently and sustainably.
Learning to plan meals and cook for yourself is empowering. It's even more empowering once you learn more about the types of foods you like and which make you feel best.
If you do intend to lose weight, then plan out meals that will bring you to a slight daily caloric deficit.
If you intend to build muscle and gain weight while you're training, plan meals that will bring you to approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight and a slight daily caloric surplus.
Otherwise, find a middle ground. Be sure to eat as much fruit and vegetables as possible since you can't go wrong with those. Ensure you're getting adequate fats and proteins– which is especially important for vegans to double-check since high-quality plant-based proteins can be fairly pricey, especially if you're not a big fan of tofu.
Outside of that, moderation is key. You don't have to completely cut ut chips or sweets or beer to have a healthful, fulfilling diet. Cutting back and being selective about when you indulge is best.
I use StrongrFastr to plan out my meals week to week. This helps me calculate my macros and ensure that I'm getting a well-rounded diet. They don't sponsor me and I don't make affiliate income from them– it's just an app that I really love for meal planning and use almost daily.
Nutrition & Fitness FAQs
So far, we've covered the key basic elements of having a functional understanding of nutrition. This barely scratches the surface, and if you want to go deeper on nutrition science, the American Society for Nutrition has some pretty comprehensive resources. There are also content creators online who take an evidence-based approach to teach others about nutrition, such as AndyDoesHealthy on TikTok and our friend James Nemecek, the Fitness Agent.
If you do follow and listen to someone online when it comes to dietary and nutrition advice, double-check their credentials. If they're not a trained dietician or over-employ buzzwords and fear-based language, it's best to avoid their content.
Beyond the basics, there are a few common questions folks ask when they're wanting to take their wellness regimen to the next level.
Do I need to Do Meal Prep?
Meal prep refers to planning and cooking your meals ahead of time. This can be done in batches where you prepare a meal for a few days or all of your meals for the week. It often involves cooking large quantities of food that you then portion out into individual meal containers to reheat later.
Meal prep is great because it takes the guesswork out of knowing what you're going to eat. Plus, it can help you remain more consistent with your food intake because it removes in-the-moment inconvenience. Rather than stumbling upon your lunch break and having to think about what you're going to eat, you already have a meal prepared that you can warm up and enjoy.
Personally, I do recommend meal prepping. In my experience, it makes the dietary consistency aspect of training significantly easier.
However, meal prepping may not be for everybody. If you have a family and have to cook for several people, for example, it can be hard to make adequate quantities of food ahead of time that will satisfy everybody. On top of that, storage for that many meals can be quite challenging.
If prepping meals in advance doesn't work for you, no worries! In situations where I can't prep meals ahead of time, I try to find foods that require minimal preparation work so I can whip up a decent meal without much effort. For example, an apple, tuna mixed with mayo and dolloped onto cucumber slices, and a greens drink make for one of my favorite go-to lunches. It only takes a minute to prepare, there isn't much to clean up, and the ingredients are quite cheap.
Do I Need TO Eat 2000 Calories per Day?
Short answer: maybe! But probably not.
2,000 calories per day is a generalized benchmark that was standardized primarily as a matter of convenience and consistency rather than bodily needs.
In fact, some research suggests that 2,000 calories would be ideal for adolescents and moderately active adult women, but would be too low for men with the same activity level and individuals with a higher activity level, and would be too high for children.
As Marion Nestle, the author at FoodPolitics, writes,
Despite the observable fact that 2,350 calories per day is below the average requirements for either men or women obtained from doubly labeled water experiments, most of the people who responded to the comments judged the proposed benchmark too high. Nutrition educators worried that it would encourage overconsumption, be irrelevant to women who consume fewer calories, and permit overstatement of acceptable levels of "eat less" nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium. Instead, they proposed 2,000 calories as:
- consistent with widely used food plans
- close to the calorie requirements for postmenopausal women, the population group most prone to weight gain
- a reasonably rounded-down value from 2,350 calories
- easier to use than 2,350 and, therefore, a better tool for nutrition education
[...] [The FDA] agreed that 2,000 calories per day would be more likely to make it clear that people needed to tailor dietary recommendations to their own diets. The FDA wanted people to understand that they must adjust calorie intake according to age, sex, activity, and life stage.
How many calories you need day to day will vary based upon a variety of factors. 2,000 may work for you as a generalized benchmark, but you can get a bit more precise about what constitutes a caloric surplus or deficit by calculating your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR). Calculators like this one make that pretty easy.
How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat to Build Muscle?
Anyone who lifts has probably asked themself if they're eating enough protein.
You see bodybuilders and physique competitors doing crazy things to get as much protein as they want like chugging raw eggs and eating five or more chicken breasts per day.
Luckily, most of us don't need to eat like Mr. Olympia.
We cover protein intake in decent detail here, but as a rule of thumb, the average adult should be eating about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight as a baseline.
I weigh about 200 pounds, so that means that if I eat the 0.4-gram baseline (okay, the baseline is actually closer to 0.36, but rounding makes things easier), then I would need around 80 grams of protein per day.
To put that into context, a six-ounce chicken breast contains about 52 grams of protein and one cup of tofu contains 20 grams of protein.
Folks who are actively training to build muscle should aim for more protein since it plays a vital role in muscle and tissue health and maintenance. Such folks should try to eat 0.9 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Are GMO-free and Organic Foods Better?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: It's complicated, but you shouldn't assume that a food is better for you or higher quality just because it's labeled as GMO-free or organic.
In many cases, these labels are fairly arbitrary and exist more like a marketing tactic than a form of nutritional insight.
On top of that, GMO-free and organic products reflect some of the under-discussed political aspects of food consumption and production. On the surface, it's easy to see that these foods may not be an option for lower-income individuals since they're typically quite pricey.
Below the surface, there's also a web of disinformation and anti-science sentiment that fuels the popularity of these labels; plus, though they're often touted as being more ethical products to consume, many are farmed and harvested in ways that exploit migrant workers, emit higher levels of CO2, or displace native wildlife.
If GMO-free and organic products align with your personal values and you can afford them, go ahead and purchase them! That's great. In spite of the political aspects of food production (which also affect GMO and non-organic products, by the way), you should always seek to do what you can to embrace your values when you can.
If that's not a priority for you or you want to be more budget-conscious, from a health perspective, you are totally fine to buy cheaper produce. Personally speaking, I rarely ever buy organic produce (except for tomatillos since my grocery store only carries organic tomatillos, for some reason), and most of the vegetables I buy are frozen since I can get a lot of veggies for fairly cheap.
What About Cheat Days? AKA, Is It Okay to Periodically Break My Diet?
Cheat days are a relic of restrictive dieting and, in some cases, they can resemble disordered eating.
The idea of a cheat day is that you strictly adhere to your chosen diet for six days, and then for one day each week, you eat as much as you want of whatever you want.
The thought process here is that doing so will help you get cravings and urges out of your system. Sometimes, you'll also end up with a carbohydrate surplus, which can help you feel more energized during your physical training that follows.
Personally, I'm not a fan of the cheat day mentality. In my experience, if your daily food intake leaves you with strong cravings, you're probably being too restrictive to be sustainable. Instead, I find it better and easier to take a moderation-based approach and just accept that there are some days where I may want to swap out my healthful meal for a burrito, and that's okay.
Remember, your diet is about fueling your body and consuming what you need. You are not in a monogamous relationship with bland proteins and leafy greens. You're not "cheating" on anyone or anything by eating foods you enjoy.