Three basic principles of nutrition
Nutrition. There may not be another topic about which so many swimmers are more confused. Yet the best practices for nutrition aren’t so much about knowing the best practices, but rather following through and implementing those best practices. And for many people, the former is much easier than the latter.
There really aren’t any secrets to sound nutrition practices—in fact it can summed up in three simple principles: 1) Identify the basic macronutrients of your food (carbohydrates, protein, fats); 2) Get the freshest food you can find; and 3) Eat as much variety of foods as possible.
Know Your Macronutrients
There are three macronutrient categories: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. You need some of all three, but how much of each three is the important piece.
Most people, especially Americans, consume far too many carbohydrates. Many are highly processed and filled with stuff you don’t need. Most people can probably cut back on carb consumption. Look for more whole food carbohydrates, such as whole wheat pasta or brown rice instead of processed and packaged foods.
Protein is what your body uses to build and repair your muscles. Most people get enough of this, but the quality of protein you’re consuming is the important piece here. Stick to lean, high-quality animal protein, such as beef, buffalo, chicken, turkey, and fish. Other great sources of quality protein are eggs (cage-free are best) and legumes, such as beans, lentils, or peanuts.
Fats may be the most misunderstood of the macronutrients, especially if you’re looking to drop a little weight. However, if you want to lose weight, consuming quality fats will help your body use and shed your stored fat as energy. Fat gives you the most bang for your buck, with nine calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates only give you four. Nuts, avocados, and olive oil are good sources of healthy fats.
After you’ve identified your food, the next principle of good nutrition is to obtain the freshest food possible. Many grocery retailers offer locally grown foods, which reduces the time from farm to table. To get the maximum nutritional benefit you need to eat most foods in their most natural state. Thinking about how your food is packaged is a great tool to help identify how close to the natural state it is. For example most vegetables are without packaging in the store, so it’s in a very natural and fresh state. The fewer packages and wrapping you have on the food you consume, the fresher and more natural you can assume it is.
Variety is Key
The third principle is variety, and the best indicator for variety is color. Vibrant color directly correlates to nutritional value. If your meal looks pretty bland, it probably isn’t doing much for you. Most American diets consist of dinner plates with a lot of shades of brown and white. If you don’t have a lot of color you’re not a getting a lot of nutrition from your meal. It may fill you up calorie-wise but the nutrients are found in foods with lots of color. Go for foods with deep colors, such as red cabbage, kale, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Now What? Implementation
Chances are, after reading this far, that you fall into one of two categories:
- You were so confused about nutrition before that this seems oversimplified and you’re skeptical, still thinking there must be some new diet or program that will really help you.
- You’ve heard most of this before but you don’t follow enough of it for whatever reason.
Here’s the actual meat to this article. Again, it’s not about the having the information as much as on acting upon it. So here are some practical tips to help with the action.
Plan your meals for the week ahead of time, and don’t feel bad if you repeat one or two of them in the week. It’s better for you to repeat a good meal than have two poor meals for the sake of variety.
Shop the Perimeter
Do all of your shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store first; produce, meat, and fish are usually located on the outside walls. Once you have everything you need, then you can venture into the aisles if you want something sweet or another item that isn’t on the meal plan. Also, the more food you buy without packaging, the better (eat fresh).
Most of the time you’re probably not as hungry as you think you are. Your brain is always trying to make sure you have more than you need to survive. Two-thirds of Americans have way more than they need to survive, so keep that in mind the next time you think you’re starving. But if you do get that feeling, go for some pre-cut vegetables and see if it was more of an urge to simply perform the act of eating, rather than your body needing to replenish and restore.
Nutrition isn’t a mystery but it does require self-discipline. After years of working with hundreds of athletes, I’ve found it’s not so much about having the right information or plan but the actual implementation of that plan, even if it’s not the perfect plan. Better to take baby steps and do a few things right and slowly get better over time, than do the perfect plan but quit a week later and go back to making poor food choices. If you do slip up and make poor choices, don’t give up—get back on track and keep trying.