Dieting 101 - the building blocks of nutrition
Updated: Feb 1
There's a lot of info about nutrition that gains popularity on social media, but it isn't necessarily evidence based. Even more worrying than that, however, is that the wild claims that often get the most popular are about the smallest of niche things - the supplement, the timing, the effect this food has on a particular enzyme. There are 1300 different enzymes in the human body, don't purely focus on one!
To avoid missing the forest for the trees, I've compiled what I believe to be the basic building blocks of nutrition. By understanding these concepts, you will have the base with which to build healthy habits. Focus on these low hanging fruits forever and always, before you look to more specific concepts of dieting.
1. Energy balance (calories)
This is the most basic of all concepts for nutrition. Food is fuel, it gives us energy to keep going. If you are stuck on a desert island and don't eat any food, you will run out of energy. Everyone knows that.
But because good scientists always base their assumptions of the world off objective numbers, humans invented a way to measure the amount of fuel we get from food and started calling those units "calories".
Counting calories is a really good way of knowing how much fuel you are consuming, but energy balance isn't just about how much fuel you put into your system, it's also about how much fuel you put out. And that's where the balance comes in, you have to eat enough food to ensure that you are well energised, but not too much that your body has no room in the tank to store it.
Every individual has a different and fluctuating amount of fuel that they need to consume just to maintain homeostasis - to keep the lights on in the internal organs. We call this your metabolism (or basal metabolic rate if you want to sound smart). If you eat more than your maintenance levels, your body stores this as fat - a good thing, as this can be used later if you don't have any other fuel, but obviously too much can lead to health complications. If you eat less than your maintenance levels, your body can't function on nothing, so it begins breaking down its own cells to find fuel.
Now does this mean that if we just count calories and do nothing else, we should lose weight? Not exactly, but it's a very good starting point.
Calories as a measuring tool are not any different to litres. If you fill a car up, you measure it in litres and you need a certain amount. Not enough and the engine won't run for long, too much and the tank will overflow. Clearly this is the most important factor for measuring energy. BUT, it doesn't tell you anything about what we just put in the tank. The car isn't going to run for very long if you fill it up with 40L of American whiskey (I assume...). Similarly, calories give us a good measure of how much fuel, but not about what kind of fuel or how it gets used up.
That's where macronutrients come in.
Macronutrients are how we break down food into categories based on what makes up the nutrient. Each macronutrient is digested and utilised differently in the body. This is effectively the type of fuel you use for your engine. There are 3* macronutrients:
Carbohydrates, proteins & fats *and alcohol kinda technically counts as well 🤷
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel while exerting. They can be metabolised quickly, as they are the only fuel source to be used without oxygen, so get a VIP pass to the engine room when we are doing moderate-high intensity activities. They can also be used with oxygen, which is a slower process, but produces more energy.
They are found in high abundance in foods such as rice, bread, potatoes. Sugars also fall under the category of carbohydrates.
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
Proteins are the body's building blocks. They are used to create new cells and repair damaged cells throughout the body. This occurs naturally as we have roughly 37.2 trillion cells, so the maintenance fee on the body is constantly high. When exercising we need more protein as there will be more damage and growth, which is why ripped dudes always walk around with protein shakes. Protein also heavily affects how full you feel and takes lots of energy to digest, so it is important for losing weight too.
Protein isn't usually used to fuel exercise as building blocks are hard to break down, though it can be converted if the body needs it. Protein is found in high abundance in meat, dairy and legumes.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Fats - also known as lipids because suburban mums are scared of the word fat - are super important for transporting chemicals in the body. They are also the body's main source of fuel while lounging around watching Netflix (or other streaming services) as they take a while to break down, but provide a large dose of energy in return.
Fats also have a huge amount of calories per gram - more than double the amount of energy than the others! They are not very satiating and easy to over-consume - this is most likely why they have been demonised so ridiculously for weight gain in the past, Fats can be found in an abundance of foods such as red meat, dairy, nuts, oils and avocados.
1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories
I don't really know why alcohol counts as a macronutrient, that's beyond my paygrade, but know that 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories. More than carbs and protein but less than fat. That means cutting out alcohol can have a large impact on total calorie intake, even if you drink *gag* low-carb beers *gag*. I also don't believe alcohol has a functional role in the body... besides inhibiting that voice inside telling you not to do that stupid thing you're about to do.
Make sure you eat a balance of macronutrients!
Eating foods which cover all of these food groups is what "eating a balanced diet" looks like. In general, it is suggested to aim for about 30% of your energy from protein, 40% from carbohydrates and 30% from fat, but those numbers are very variable depending on who you ask. Alternatively, you can visit this website: www.bodybuilding.com/fun/macronutrients_calculator.htm for a free and easy to use macronutrient calculator which gives you a rough idea of what your targets should look like.
At the very least, try to include a serve of carbohydrates, a serve of protein and a serve of healthy fats at each meal you consume, to ensure you are covering all your nutritional needs.
3. Quality food sources
Before turning to supplements or restrictive diets, look instead at the quality of the foods you are eating. Eating food that is whole, fresh, and largely unprocessed is how you find quality food sources. This is important for a multitude of reasons.
The biggest reason to eat quality food is that nutrients have specific interactions when consumed together. Unlike a lot of processed foods, most whole foods don't contain just a single macronutrient, but a variety in differing quantities and this can change the way our body absorbs and uses these nutrients.
For example, we know that high LDLs (bad fats) are bad for your cardiovascular health but when consumed in high quality sources such as full-fat dairy, it has no negative impacts on your cardiovascular health. It is believed that the complex matrix of nutrients is what causes this.
Us scientists are still human, believe it or not, so we don't know everything and are still discovering new, complex interactions in the body. By eating mostly whole foods, you are trusting nature's millennia of testing rather than a flawed human testing system (looking at you, health star rating, for ranking foods like Nutri-grain 5 stars).
Regardless of the reason, eating quality whole foods is an easy way to improve your diet. Aim for 3 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables each day. Keep the packaged, processed foods to a minimum.
And for the record, genetically modified food is not lower quality food. If anything, it's probably higher quality. Here's a neat summary of evidence from Biolayne on Instagram
Diets can be a complicated topic, but they don't always have to be. I'm a big fan of the KISS approach - Keep It Simple, Stupid. So, before you go down a carnivore-only rabbit hole or pay premiums for a ground up mixture of vitamins, focus on the 3 factors that make up the building blocks of nutrition:
Energy balance (calories)
High quality foods
By understanding these 3 factors and mastering your control of them, you will be maximising the majority of your diet and setting yourself up for success.
Don't just take my word for it: Alan Aragon has created this useful pyramid for visualising where the importance lies when it comes to diets.
Alan Aragon is a well-respected nutritional researcher and educator who runs a handy Instagram page for promoting healthy nutrition for gym goers, check him out.
Until next time,