When it comes to nutrition and setting up a diet, we often focus on the small things like supplements, hoping they will be the thing that makes a sudden difference. The power of marketing often coerces us to invest in expensive products that will provide us with that quick fix.
But what we always need to begin with is a stable foundation. And that’s where the nutrition pyramid comes in.
When attempting to make a change we can’t just “eat clean” and ignore calories, or rely on meal frequency and timing to compensate binge eating or a poor diet.
The Nutrition Pyramid:
The foundation of the nutrition pyramid – and any diet – is calories. It’s simple, but often the most simple things are overlooked. We tend to associate difficult tasks with being complicated, and simple tasks with being easy – meaning we fail to set-up a simple foundation for what we anticipate will be a difficult task, such as fat loss.
We always need to start with energy balance and calories. We need to match our calories to our goal. So, always start with calculating your maintenance level of calories, and adjust – adding calories if you want to be in a surplus and subtracting calories to be in a deficit, equating for activity levels and the intensity of training.
2 – Macronutrients
Your total calories and daily diet can then be broken down into macronutrients – the amount of Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats you consume.
Not all calories are created equal, and each macronutrient is made up of a different number of calories, and fulfils a different role in the body.
Protein – 4kcal per gram – primarily used to build and repair
Carbohydrates – 4kcal per gram – are typically, our primary fuel source
Fats – 9kcal per gram -are used as fuel and for hormone production and regulation
- Protein enables us to recover from training; keeping protein intake high can help retain lean body tissue when dieting, and help grow more muscle when bulking. It also ha the highest effect on satiety of all the macronutrients, meaning we feel fuller for longer.
Typically when we structure a diet, we would choose a macro split that provides us with enough fuel for training and activity, while facilitating recovery. Many recommend setting protein at 1.6-1.8 g/kg of bodyweight, however, since body fat ranges dramatically between individuals, using Lean Body Mass (LBM) can be a far more optimal way of determine protein intake, since the more lean body mass we have, the more protein we will require.
- Carbohydrates help fuel our workouts and daily activities, replacing muscle glycogen – the primary fuel source for our muscles (though technically, carbs are also the only macronutrient that we can live without).
We always need to make sure we consume enough carbs so we are adequately fuelled, and can maintain lean muscle mass. 80% of a workout is fuelled by glycogen stores, so a low glycogen state will compromise your ability to train hard, even though low energy will always be a result when we are in a calorie deficit for long periods of time.
- Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient, so by reducing fats we can easily change our overall calorie intake. However, fats are vital for regular hormone production, so dropping too low can negatively effect our hormones, one of the most common being a low sex drive. Those with higher levels of body fat often do better on higher fat and lower carb diets, due to insulin sensitivity which increases the more lean you get.
- Fibre is classed as a carbohydrate, and keeps us felinging more full for longer WITHOUT significantly increasing calorie content. It also helps to lower blood sugar levels and cholesterol, and slows down digestion, also avoiding constipation and reducing risk of colon cancer.
> Minimum – 20g/25g for women and men respectively
>Maximum – 20% of your carb intake.
- Alcohol – 7kcal per gram
Alcohol is often labelled an empty calorie since it doesn’t provide nutrients, however each gram of alcohol contains 7 calories, and is usually combined with carbohydrates (either from fruit as with wine, hops/barley/wheat in beer, or sugr from carbonated mixers).
We can always adjust and equate for moderate alcohol consumption, by finding out the calorific content of alcoholic drinks and subtracting that amount of calories from our calories to maintain our calorie balance or target for the day. It’s best to choose to take those calories from carbs and fat, while keeping protein high.
3 – Micronutrients
After macros, we can break our diets down further to micronutrients. These are the vitamins and minerals within foods, and they predominantly come from fruits and vegetables. A variety of these foods will provide us with a nutrient-rich diet, and help us move away from processed foods and towards whole foods, helping us achieve a balanced diet.
4 – Timing
There are many different strategies and forms for meal frequency and timing – whether you eat smaller meals more frequently, time carbs pre and post-workout, or use intermittent fasting or specific eating windows. However, the small benefit these strategies might provide, mean nothing if we haven’t got the first stages of the pyramid right, since nutrition is dependant upon the energy balance of total calories in vs. total calories out.
Ultimately these methods come down to personal preference, and what works best for the individual. What matters most is eating the right amount of calories and nutrients by the end of the day. Meal timings are just a strategy to help you get there.
Since supplementation has the least effect on diet, it comes last in the pyramid. Once we have perfected the amount of what we are eating, the individual macro splits and nutrients, and then the times we are eating, that’s when we can introduce supplements to fill the gaps in our diets and nutrition that our food isn’t supplying. For example, if we aren’t eating enough vegetables, we can use a greens power or a multivitamin to ensure we are getting the correct amount of vitamins and minerals. We can use protein powder to increase our protein intake, and omega-3 supplement if we don’t like eating oily fish or certain other healthy fats.
But we always need to remember they are called supplements for a reason, they supplement our diet, they don’t replace it.
There’s our Nutrition Pyramid – a simple way to start setting up a diet, focusing on building a solid foundation, and achieving consistency, before we move onto each stage.
Calories: determine overall energy balance
>calculate energy balance for weight loss or gain
>adjust for activity levels
>track and adjust as we go
Macros: determine body composition
>determine the split you prefer, low fat/high carb or high fat/low carb, while keeping protein consistently high.
Remember we always need that solid foundation before we work our way up the pyramid, and work out all the individual components that make a complete diet.
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