Nutritional Priorities – what’s important, what’s not

You’ve decided that defattening yourself is a good idea. You feel that it’s worth the effort, and that you will persevere through the times when you slip up.

Now where to start? The standard advice is always: eat less, move more. And it’s fairly accurate if less than extremely helpful advice.

There’s an old saying in the fitness realm that has many forms, but the basic message is that what you put in your mouth is the biggest determiner of your success or failure in your body composition goals. If you’re fat, you need to eat less than you burn overall. If you are skinny and want to gain muscle, the opposite is true.

You’ve probably heard that “a calorie is not a calorie” or that there are “good calories, [and] bad calories.” While there is some merit to these arguments, they are really all about splitting hairs and not something that pretty much anyone in the general public needs to worry about. As far as 99% of the population is concerned, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you stuff less of them in your face and keep everything else the same, you will lose weight. A good rule of thumb is that if someone tells you calories don’t matter, they are trying to sell you something. Either a diet (often low-carb) or a religion (usually veganism or paleo).

Note that this does not mean that 100 calories from table sugar is exactly the same as 100 calories from vegetables or meat. Please do try to not be any more obtuse than you absolutely have to be.

So, calories are the absolute number one most important thing to get right. Not exercise, not anything else. Get your calories right and you are going to be well on the way towards your goals. Conversely, get everything ELSE right, and screw up your calorie intake, and you will make minimal progress at best, or go in the absolute wrong direction at worst. There is no point of worrying about the difference between saturated and polyunsaturated fats as they pertain to your diet if you are a 150lb person eating 5000 calories per day and trying to lose weight.

Some people would argue that carbs are the next most important thing, but that is only really arguable for athletic populations. And if you are trying to lose fat mass you probably aren’t a competitive athlete and looking to this blog for advice.

So the second most important factor for nutrition for the general public is protein. Realistically, most people in the general population probably don’t get enough. If you are looking to lose fat mass with a minimum of muscle loss, you should be getting about 1g/lb of lean body mass. So if you are 300lb and 40% body fat like House, you should be getting about 180g/day of protein. As you get leaner, you can switch to using total body mass for the purposes of this calculation, as the difference between the two is minimal. As a general rule, whole food sources tend to be best for satiety reasons, but there is no rule saying that whey protein shakes are verboten when on a fat loss diet if that is what works for you.

Next up is carbohydrates. Carb levels should be set based around your activity levels, specifically how much training you do. If you sit at a desk all day and the most strenuous thing you do is go back and forth to the water cooler, you can eat no carbs at all and be just fine. If you are training with any serious intensity level, you should probably keep carbs at the 1g/lb of lbm level daily, and higher on training days. There is a lot of variance in this one depending on the person, so the nuts and bolts of setting carbohydrate levels will be covered another time. Basically, more if you are training more, less if not.

Next up is fats, which basically get set as whatever the rest of your daily calorie intake is. You should get a minimum of SOME daily fats, as they can be important for hormone regulation and all sorts of other fun stuff, but beyond what you are probably going to get anyways if you are eating primarily whole foods, there probably isn’t a whole lot of value to getting really crazy about this until you get down to pretty low leanness levels.

Some will tell you that nutrient timing doesn’t matter in the slightest. I suggest those people eat one meal per week and tell me how well that works out for them. For everyone else, eating a reasonable number of meals per day, somewhere between 2 and 6 is probably ideal depending on how many calories you are consuming in a day, what your schedule is like, and all that jazz. Try to eat protein at every meal. Other than that the details are pretty meaningless for most folks. IF works for some people but is beyond the scope of this post.

At this point you have probably covered 90-95% of the results you can get with your nutritional plan. Everything else is just really really minor details, especially for the general population.

Food quality is up next. You CAN get thinner just by eating a whole bunch of twinkies, so long as you are keeping your calorie intake lower than your expenditure. This guy proved it. BUT, I bet he was really hungry all the time. A twinkie is never going to be as satiating as a piece of fish, some vegetables, and a potato. If you eat primarily whole foods, you’ve got this one covered. There are some details regarding protein quality, the vitamin content of various vegetables, and that kind of thing, but realistically they aren’t that important for the vast majority of people who aren’t deficient in anything.

Finally we have supplementation. The guys over at Examine.com can tell you anything you could ever want to know about most supplements. From a nutritional standpoint, it probably isn’t a bad idea to take omega-3’s if you don’t eat a fair amount of fish, and a decent multivitamin will most likely be more than adequate to cover you for any minor gaps in the nutrient profiles of the foods you eat.

That’s a brief overview of the nutritional priorities you should worry about. We will cover most if not all of them in future posts.

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