The basics of nutrition are simple.  Here are the five main principles according to Miami Dade College professor Tim Patton.  I’ve added my own commentary on each, though.

1. Plan Your Meals

This is primarily because a lot of our eating is done without thinking.  This action will bring meal-planning to its proper level of thought, and we will be able to truly understand just how much of what we are eating.

In addition to that, this is to make sure that we aren’t someone who has no breakfast, has a small lunch, and eats a big dinner.  Those people wreck their metabolism because they starve their body when they need energy and then they give their body a feast when they don’t need any energy.  It’s always best to operate under the principle of feeding your body in preparation for the activity you’re about to do.

So, since your breakfast gives your body the fuel for your morning activities and your carbohydrate reserves are likely to be low since you haven’t eaten all night, it’s rational to eat a fairly large breakfast.  Then, since your lunch gives your body the energy for all of your afternoon activities, it makes sense to eat a moderate lunch.  Lastly, since your dinner is only giving you energy for the last few hours of the day, and most people aren’t very active after dinner, it makes sense to eat a small dinner so that you aren’t giving your body a lot of extra fuel to store during your sleep.

2. Eat a variety of foods

On a personal note, I have tried just about every diet out there before I took my first college nutrition class.  After I took General Nutrition and Sports Nutrition, I finally understood that a lot of what I had done before was ridiculous.

After personally trying most of the fad diets, I can confidently say that I’ve always had my best performance on the field/weight room and felt the best when I did what the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says to do.  They say to follow the food pyramid and be sure to get all of your macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, water).  In this issue it really is simply groups of rogue theorists against the established group of scientists we know and love as Dietitians.

It’s also important to point out that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’s recommendations are almost identical to all other developed countries’ recommendations.  The differences are solely cultural (because we don’t eat as much soy as Japanese people do and Brazilians don’t eat as much kimchi as Koreans do, etc.).  So, the notion that food companies buy off the government to recommend whatever the companies desire for them to do is bogus.  Well, unless these companies have been able to buy off every company in the world and every university that researches nutrition in the world.  Such a feat would be spectacular and is highly improbable.

3. Focus on carbohydrates

A simple definition of carbohydrates is “anything without a mother”.  So, this includes almost all plants (excluding nuts and avocados).  Although carbohydrates have largely been framed as the villain in the nutrition picture, they are far more peaceful and life-giving than low-carb advocates believe.  Here are the most important aspects of why you need to eat carbs.

First, carbohydrates fuel your central nervous system.  Actually, carbohydrates fuel almost everything that your body ever does.  The only time fat gets notably involved is when it comes to long-duration exercise.  Other than that, your body is a carbohydrate connoisseur.

Secondly, your body converts protein into carbohydrate.  This happens at very small levels in your body all of the time.  However, this process becomes your enemy once your body has run out of carbohydrates because you stopped eating them.  Your body stores extra carbohydrates that you eat in your liver and muscles.  However, once that carbohydrate storage is depleted, your body still needs carbs to fuel your central nervous system.  Your body is a survival machine.  Always remember that.

So, your body has to keep itself alive.  Your body knows that brain function is essential to survival, and it knows that you use about six grams of carbohydrate per hour simply to run the brain.  When you don’t eat carbohydrates and your extra stores of it are gone, your body goes into its last-ditch effort to keep your brain going.  Your body cannibalizes itself.  However, it doesn’t cannibalize the fat that you want it to in order to keep itself alive.  It simply cannot use the extra fat storage for brain function (fat can only be used by muscle mass), so it breaks down the protein in your muscles to make the carbohydrate that it needs to keep your brain running.

In an very simplistic view, we can think of protein as carbohydrate with nitrogen attached to it.  In order for your body to turn protein into carbohydrate, it must break the nitrogen off of the carbohydrate and find some way to dispose of the nitrogen.  Unfortunately for us, the nitrogen breaks off as either urea or ammonia.  Both of which are toxic.  So, essentially, all we’re doing when we make our bodies use protein for carbohydrates is filling ourselves with extra toxins.  This obviously isn’t recommended for good health or good fitness.

However, we can avert this process by being sure that our carbohydrate stores are never depleted.  We must eat carbohydrates in order to survive in our body’s “Plan A” mode.  Not eating carbohydrates turns our bodies into “Plan B” mode, and it means that we will work our bodies harder for less benefit.  It is not intelligent, and it is not recommended by any professional nutrition group in the world.

4. Limit your intake of fat and sugar

First off, fat.  Although the body first uses carbohydrates either for energy or for carbohydrate storage and then turns carbohydrates into fat only if it has no other use for them, the body always sends dietary fat to body fat first.  So, your ranch dressing and bacon grease immediately go to your abs, hips, thighs, and buttocks.  After that, your body then decides what to do with it.

However, the attentive eye notices that I said “limit” rather than “eliminate”.  The body needs some fat for nerve conduction, organ padding, and thermal regulation.  As a result, we must eat some fat, but the standard American diet is far too high in it.

Next, sugar is to be consumed in small quantities.  Although it’s not quite as quickly stored as body fat as dietary fat is, it’s still problematic.  This is because sugar is absorbed so quickly.  All carbohydrates are first used for energy or for carbohydrate storage and then if the body doesn’t need them for either of those two functions, they are turned into body fat.  However, the rate of digestion of each of type of carbohydrate varies.  Since sugar is absorbed very quickly, it is quickly used for energy or for a storage form of carbohydrate.  The dark side of sugar is that since it is absorbed so quickly, it’s likely that if you eat too much of it at once, then your body will have too much carbohydrate available for its current needs, and it will store the excess sugar as fat.

This is in stark contrast to the complex carbohydrates found in most plants (like grains, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, whole-grain bread, etc.) because complex carbohydrates are absorbed more slowly.  As a result, your body gets a slower, constant stream of carbohydrates so it can put more of them into energy usage or carbohydrate storage.  Since complex carbohydrates are absorbed over a greater period of time, the carbohydrates are much less likely to overwhelm our body’s current needs and to be stored as body fat.

5. Don’t worry about protein

Protein needs are ridiculously over-analyzed.  I don’t fully understand why, but I think it has something to do with the marketing campaigns of protein shake manufacturers and with out-dated bodybuilding views from the 70s.  In the 70s, nutrition was still a relatively new science.  They didn’t have much information available.  As a result, the bodybuilders made the logical assumption that eating another animal’s muscle tissue would result in building up their own.  Unfortunately, a lot of the fitness industry still hasn’t gotten past that half-truth.

While it’s true that you need protein to build muscle mass, it’s also true that you need energy both to spare the protein from being used for energy and for the building of muscle mass.  So, while you need protein, it’s a much lower amount than typical fitness magazines tell you, and the main nutrient that we really need has become demonized.  In pop culture, carbohydrates became the scapegoat for obesity and protein became the salvific figure who rescues us all from our jelly rolls.

The truth is that we really don’t need all that much protein.  For most people, you can get all of your protein needs simply by eating one chicken breast a day along with other normal foods.  This isn’t that I have any particular affinity for chicken, it’s just a convenient example.  If you want to analyze this, consider the fact that the AND says that the general public only needs 0.36g of protein per pound of body weight at the most.  So, if you’re 150lbs and are a part of the general public who doesn’t work out every day, then 54g of protein is the most you could need.  If you consider that a chicken breast has around 55g of protein, then you can see that after eating that, you would have exceeded your needed protein intake.  You’d have to put a conscious effort into under-eating protein.

However, at the higher end of the spectrum, the AND says that strength athletes and endurance athletes need up to 0.91g of protein per pound of body weight.  Studies are yet to be conclusive on the danger of over-eating protein as far as it comes to health.  The potential negatives are that excessive protein intake can damage your kidneys or make it easier to develop osteoporosis.  Theoretically, these theories make sense, but they have yet to be proven.

So, why wouldn’t I suggest eating protein all day?  Simply because it all comes down to the amount of calories you eat and making sure that you eat enough carbohydrates.  Carbs are your body’s favorite energy source, so if you eat plenty of them, you give yourself the best chance to perform well during exercise in order to stimulate more muscle mass gain and cardiovascular benefits.  If your body is carb deficient and starts using protein as an energy source, you’re going to drag in the gym and not be able to perform well.  This lack of performance will guarantee a lack of results because you simply aren’t able to work hard enough to make the positive health and fitness changes that only come through hard work.

For the rest of “The Simplified Science of How to be Healthy” go here.