Top 8 Nutrition Questions—Answered!
As a health and fitness professional, I get a ton of diet and nutrition related questions.
Coming up with the right answers can be difficult, because:
The right answer depends on who is asking. Young athlete? Middle-aged man? Sixty-something woman? The questions run the gamut.
There are so many facets of nutrition. Macronutrients, micronutrients, supplements, pesticides, GMOs… where do I start?
There’s a TON of confusion about nutrition “truths.” Is red wine saving your life, or killing you? What about red meat? Eggs? And how ’bout that new plant-based diet?
The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any nutrition question.
For now, let’s get started with some of the most common nutrition questions, including:
- Question #1: “I’m new to this whole nutrition thing. Where do I start?”
- Question #2: “What’s the best diet to follow?”
- Question #3: “Is counting calories important for weight loss?”
- Question #4: “Should I avoid carbs?”
- Question #5: “Should I avoid grains?”
- Question #6: “Does the Paleo Diet live up to the hype?”
- Question #7: “Should I do a detox or juice cleanse?”
- Question #8: “Do sleep habits and stress really affect nutrition?”
“I’m new to this whole nutrition thing. Where do I start?”
Let’s start by eliminating nutritional deficiencies.
No one ever wants to believe they have nutritional deficiencies. Nutrition beginners don’t need a major diet overhaul on day one. As a nutritional beginner you don’t need to “go Paleo” or “eliminate sugar.”
Until nutritional deficiencies are removed, the body simply won’t function properly. That makes any health or fitness goal a lot harder.
So, to eliminate deficiencies, your first order of business is to find workable strategies for rounding out the diet, so you get:
- a bit more protein,
- ample vitamins and minerals,
- sufficient healthy fats, and
- more water.
Establishing optimal eating habits one step at a time is the way to start. Find out which of the nutritional areas listed above will be most challenging for you.
Once nutritional deficiencies are addressed, you can start to focus on things like food quality and portions.
This process isn’t slow; it’s systematic. It focuses on the things that are in your way right now. Once they’re eliminated, progress happens fast.
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What’s the best diet to follow?
There is no “best diet.”
Everyone wants to know which dietary “camp” I belong to. I maintain a neutral position on this. I strive to be a nutritional agnostic: someone who doesn’t subscribe to any one dietary philosophy.
Why? All dietary protocols have their pros and cons. What works best for one person won’t work best for another. Also: A diet that has worked best for someone in the past won’t necessarily be what works best for them moving forward.
I help my clients find the approach to eating that works best for them right now, whether it be Paleo or vegan, high-carb or low-carb, tight budget or unlimited funds, or some blend of all of these.
The truth is, the human body is amazingly adaptable to a vast array of diets, so the best diet is the one that:
- matches to your unique physiology,
- includes foods you enjoy enough to follow consistently, and
- is realistic for you in terms of life logistics and budget.
Indeed, you can become lean, strong, and healthy on a plant-based or a meat-based diet. You can improve your health with organic, free-range foods and with conventional foods. You can lose weight on a low food budget or an unlimited one.
It just takes a little know-how and a system for using the best practices across all diets.
Is counting calories important for weight loss?
For many people, calorie counting may be more of a hassle than it’s worth. The good news: There is a better way.
Weight management is a simple equation: Eat more than you burn, and you gain weight. Eat less and you lose weight.
But the physiology behind “calories in, calories out” is actually much more complex and dynamic than most people realize. Plus, it’s imprecise; we estimate that there’s typically an error of up to 25 percent on the ‘calories in’ side, and on the ‘calories out’ side.
Beyond that, counting calories is an external system (outside of your body). In essence, people who count calories are less likely to see lasting results because they’re outsourcing appetite awareness to the food-label gods. To really win at portion control, it’s best to tune into your internal hunger signals.
For these reasons, and for most people, counting calories is a lot of work for very little benefit.
Instead of calorie counting, I recommend a hand-measure system for portion sizes. Here how it works:
- Your palm determines your protein portions.
- Your fist determines your veggie portions.
- Your cupped hand determines your carb portions.
- Your thumb determines your fat portions.
This system counts your calories for you, and gets your macronutrients lined up too, without having to do any annoying food-label math.
Plus, your hands are portable! They go wherever you go, making portion-sizing very convenient. In addition, your hands are generally scaled to your size. The bigger you are, the bigger your hands, so the more food you need and the more food you get.
Most people get the hang of this system within a week of learning it. Then you can monitor results and tweak as needed.
Should I avoid carbs?
No; but let’s make sure you’re getting the right kind of carbs.
Ask almost anyone what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on carbs.”
However, most folks would do best eating a moderate amount of quality carbs—whole grains (when tolerated), fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and legumes, etc.
For men, this usually means about 1-2 cupped handfuls per meal. And women, about 1 cupped handful per meal.
Of course, the needs of each individual may differ, based on their size, activity level, goals, and genetics.
But, bottom line, carbs are not inherently fattening, especially whole food sources. And getting adequate carbs can help you exercise harder and recover better, optimizing progress.
This may sound like a controversial position to take. But it works. And while avoiding carbs may facilitate rapid weight loss initially, I’ve found that it’s not practical (or necessary) for long-term success for most people.
Should I avoid grains?
No; most people trying to stay lean do best with a reasonable amount of whole grains.
Grain discussions are really trendy right now, as many people have suggested they’re dietary enemy #1 and should be completely eliminated. This is news as, just ten years ago, they were supposedly one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
Grains aren’t as evil as they’ve been made out to be by the Paleo and Whole30 camps. At the same time, they aren’t the superfood vegans and macrobiotic eaters suggest either.
Bottom line: While you don’t need to eat grains, unless you have celiac disease or a FODMAP intolerance there is absolutely no need to avoid them.(And even in those two scenarios, it’s only specific grains you need to worry about).
Most people follow a better, more health-promoting diet if they’re allowed grains in reasonable amounts, along with a wide array of other non-grain carb sources like fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, etc.
Remember, it’s the ability to follow a diet consistently over time that provides the greatest results, regardless of what that diet is. And unless you’re intolerant, there’s no good reason to totally exclude certain foods, especially foods you enjoy.
Does the Paleo Diet live up to the hype?
Mostly, yes. But not for the reasons you think.
The Paleo Diet is one of the most popular nutrition approaches in the world right now. There’s no doubt that it works for many people. However, the reason it works has little to do with the story the Paleo proponents tell (evolutionary adaptation, inflammation, etc.).
Here’s the deal. Paleo does work for a lot of people because it emphasizes mostly whole-food sources of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats.
However, while Paleo is starting to incorporate more high-quality carbs, grass-fed dairy, red wine, and other things that used to be “off limits”, the diet can still be too restrictive for some people.
In the end, Paleo likely gets more right than wrong. If people want to follow it, they can do it in a reasonable and sustainable way.
But for most, it’s unnecessary to follow such a strict dietary ideology. You can take the good from the Paleo approach and get rid of the dogma.
Should I do a detox or juice cleanse?
Probably not; most popular detox diets don’t remove toxins or lead to fat loss.
Lots of people are worried about the health effect of modern lifestyle factors such as poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, stress, and environmental pollutants.
I get a fair number of questions about detox diets and juice cleanses. They have come into vogue as an efficient way to (supposedly) lose weight and rid the body of impurities.
But detox diets don’t clean out toxins or help you lose body fat. In fact, detox diets can work against these goals by bypassing the body’s natural detoxification systems and creating a feast-or-famine cycle of eating.
Among many problems, detoxes and cleanses often:
- are protein deficient,
- are extremely low in energy,
- cause unhealthy blood-sugar swings,
- cause GI tract dysfunction, and
- lead to a yoyo of restrictive eating and overcompensation.
If doing a juice cleanse or detox diet helps a person get ready to make further helpful and sustainable changes in their life, OK. It’s important to use caution and use a monitored protocol.
However, I think it’s wiser to build life-long skills and incorporate daily practices to improve your health, performance, and body composition without extreme (and unsustainable) things like detoxes and cleanses.
Do sleep habits and stress really affect nutrition?
Yes, but those effects vary from person to person, as do the best sleep and stress management strategies.
Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise when it comes to improving your health, performance, and body composition.
The way I coach my clients helps them through:
- creating a sleep routine, including having a regular schedule,
- limiting alcohol and caffeine, especially in the afternoon/evening,
- choosing de-stressing activities before bed,
- setting an appropriate room temperature for sleep,
- making the room dark,
- keeping the room quiet, and
- waking up appropriately, with light exposure and soft noise.
As for stress, it’s all about finding the sweet spot. Too much stress, or the wrong kind, can harm your health. Yet stress can also be a positive force in your life, keeping you focused, alert, and at the top of your game.
It all depends on what kind of stress it is, how prepared you are to meet it, and how you view it.
Since stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, everyone experiences stress differently. Each of us has a unique “recovery zone,” whether that’s physical or psychological, and our recovery zone depends on several factors.
It is critical learn strategies and skills to view and handle your own stress load appropriately. The following can increase stress tolerance or diminish stress load:
- meditation or yoga
- outdoor time
- snuggling with a pet
- listening to relaxing music
- deep breathing
- drinking green tea
As a holistic lifestyle coach, habit coach, and big fan of personal development, I help people build nutrition and lifestyle habits that improve their physical and mental health, bolster their immunity, help them better manage stress, and get sustainable results.