This is the first post of a multi-part series in which I’ll explain my approach to nutrition. The overall approach is one that is based on the individual, their purposes, and considers their current nutrition as the starting point.
In my experience, the only way to make long-term improvements in a complex system is to understand the system. It’s possible with prefabricated diet plans, or a system of rules and restrictions, to lose weight, become fit, and even "healthy," without really understanding much about nutrition. But I believe, the only way for most individuals to consistently accomplish goals that depend on proper nutrition, is to learn about the energy and nutrient content of different foods.
I also believe that the only way to learn something is through both experience and study. Simply eating doesn’t teach you nutrition, nor does merely reading about it. To learn about food and how it affects you, it is necessary to consistently acquire and apply an ever-broadening knowledge base to increasingly complex problems. For instance, a beginner might start out learning about the energy content of a few foods. This knowledge could allow a modest caloric restriction that results in weight loss. Over time, that same person could learn, bit by bit, which foods might be used to construct a diet that would facilitate training and racing in a triathlon.
What follows is an overview of my basic method with brief explanations. Later posts will elaborate on each of these points, will provide additional examples, and will answer common questions.
Set a Goal and Choose Metrics
First, I choose and write down an explicit goal such as, "I want to lose 5 pounds." Or, a much broader goal, such as, "I want to live as long as possible, but I also want to look and feel strong, energetic, and lean."
An appropriate metric must be chosen in order to track progress towards achieving a goal. If there is no way to measure progress, the goal needs to be amended or narrowed. For a narrow goal, like the first one, I might only track weight. For a broader goal, like the second one, I might need to establish a longer list of metrics to track my progress (e.g. weight, body fat %, subjective energy level, exercise capacity, various blood tests, etc.).
In reality, I don’t have just one goal at a time. What I have, is a hierarchy of goals that is ruled by a broad goal, but is executed in terms of simpler goals like the first one above. I have a system of goals, but I work on one specific goal at a time.
Make an Assessment
After my goal is established, I evaluate my current nutrition status by tracking everything I eat and drink for a minimum of 1 week (this is not as hard as it sounds – I will demonstrate how to do this simply in a later post. To avoid appearing enigmatic here, the basic approach is to use an app called Cronometer which trivializes comprehensive nutrition tracking).
Identify and Remove Contradictions
Next, I evaluate which parts of my current nutrition contradict my goal. If my goal is to lose weight, the obvious contradiction would be any food that provides excess energy intake – i.e. too many calories.
So, in this instance, my intervention would be to eliminate any food that is a source of excess energy but which is not essential to my other nutrition needs – e.g. vitamins, minerals, essential fats, amino acids, etc.
Add Missing Essentials
I add necessities that were missing (e.g. sources of calcium, vitamin A, C, D, choline, etc.) without adding back excess energy. The best way to do this is usually to use nutrient-dense, energy-poor foods. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post – but some examples of nutrient-dense energy-poor foods are non-root vegetables such as green leaves, peppers, crucifers, fish, lean meat, eggs, and organ meats.
Execute the New Plan
Once I have a rough idea of my plan – certain foods I might want to eat more of, and those I’m decreasing, I eat. As I eat in accordance with the new plan, I track everything. Each time I record something, I can see the amount of energy I’m consuming and the nutrients in my food. With this immediate feedback, I can make real time adjustments. In effect, I’m bringing the opaque and subconscious process of eating into the front of my mind. I consume until I learn how to execute my new plan without tracking.
Reassess and Repeat
I follow metrics for a predetermined time frame and then reassess the original goal and my progress towards that goal. The time frame needs to be long enough to see the relationship between cause and effect; that is, between intervention and results. However, the time frame should be short enough to maintain motivation and to make quick improvements. In the case of losing 5 pounds, this is reasonably achievable in 2-6 weeks, so this interval would be a good reassessment time period.
Once the reassessment is done – repeat the whole process, including adjusting the goal if needed.