How To Take Your Nutrition To The Next Level for Better Health and Results In The Gym - Part 2

Nutrition can be a complicated and loaded topic, with many viewpoints and evidence for what appears to be completely opposing strategies. It can leave us with the feeling of being lost or overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of information and choices available. So how do we approach our nutrition in a practical, effective and actionable way that will actually work in the real world?

In this series of articles I will outline the approach that I take with my own nutrition and  with the people I work with in order to navigate through information overload and confusion towards implementing change that is effective and that lasts. While ultimately there isn’t a ”one-size-fits-all” perfect plan that fits absolutely everyone, there are some guiding principles and tools that can be helpful when deciding upon the best practices and changes that you will make for your nutrition.

Part 2 - Fixing a broken diet and how to implement nutritional change

In Short:

  1. Be aware of the common stumbling blocks of proper hydration, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, low protein intake and low essential fats.

  2. Build your nutrition template by assessing what you currently eat using your hand to estimate portions - palm size for protein, fist size for vegetables, cupped hand for carbohydrate dense foods and thumb size for fats. This is your starting nutrition template.

  3. Identify what you will start working on from the common stumbling blocks and build a series of habit practices to start making changes e.g. need more vegetables for your vitamin and mineral needs? First habit practice may be to add two fist sized portions of vegetables to your lunch meal each day. Continue to build simple actionable habits to address the stumbling blocks until your foundational template has been improved.

  4. You will have already made progress toward your goals with these foundational changes. Now it is time for fine-tuning based upon your specific goals.

In part one of this series we looked at how good nutrition begins with being clear about your goals, the order of priority for those goals and then digging deeper to see why they are important to you.

I then introduced the common areas you may be having problems with the foundation for your nutrition, using the How to fix a broken diet infographic for reference.

Finally there was a reminder that you are the expert of yourself and therefore have the final say as what is or is not working for you.

In part two of this series, we will dig deeper into the common stumbling blocks to having a solid foundation for your nutrition that were featured in the How to fix a broken diet infographic, starting with:  

  1. Proper hydration

  2. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

  3. Low protein intake

  4. Low essential fats

I will outline some different ways to address the problems and when it is best to choose each strategy.

We will then continue by looking at how to make a nutritional template for yourself so you have a good starting point to begin making changes.

Finally, we will cover the practicalities of implementing your template and addressing the specific stumbling blocks that apply to you. For this I will outline the idea of habit or skill practices and how you can use these to make measurable progress and change.

Before I begin, it is important to note that you may be wondering about your specific goals that you worked so hard on at the beginning of this process in part one of this series. Here is the good news: everything that we cover in this article will lead toward the achievement of those goals. The other good news is that you do not need to worry about any more complicated or additional strategies until you have addressed these first foundational steps. We will get to those extra steps in the stage of what we call ”fine tuning” in part three of this series, once all the most important ground work has been completed. In other words, using the metaphor of building a house for your nutrition, we will not worry about the colour of the paint on the walls until the house foundations and the walls themselves have actually been built. So, lets get started.

The common stumbling blocks

Inadequate Hydration

Being well-hydrated is fundemental to our well-being and performance e.g. as little as 1% dehydration can affect performance. With 50% or higher of your body consisting of water and being required for critical functions such as body temperature regulation, nutrient distribution and waste removal, it is no accident that inadequate hydration is the first on the list of common stumbling blocks.

It is normal that there is a daily loss of body water via sweat, when we go to the toilet and from breathing. Your daily water or hydration needs depend on several factors that influence you daily loss of body water including the environment in which you currently live  (hot or cold, dry or humid), how active you are and of course what you eat and drink aside from water.

While the most common recommendation is to drink 8 glass of water each day (about 2L), the problem with the 8 glass a day recommendation is that it does not consider individual needs and circumstances. So in some cases it may be right and in some cases not. So what is the best way to know how much water you need? Here are a few tips:

  1. Use your thirst as a guide. While this may sound like stating the obvious, it may take a bit of practice to observe when you are actually feeling thirsty. You can use the next two tips as a way to check how you are doing.

  2. Monitor your mood - if you feel “foggy”, tense or maybe a bit irritable (as well as a bit thirsty), it is possible that you are you are dehydrated.

  3. Use the urine color guide below to monitor you hydration level when you go to the toilet- a colour of up to 3 and even 4 on the chart is ok in the absence of thirst. If your urine is darker, chances are you are dehydrated.

urine colour map

You probably have noticed that I haven’t written a set recommendation of “drink this amount of water each day”. The reason for this is that it is impossible to provide an exact figure to aim for. If, example, you are a man living in a warmer climate and exercising frequently and intensely, your hydration needs will be higher than let’s say a women living in a cool climate who is moderately active. This is why it is better to learn to monitor your thirst and hydration with the tips above and hydrate accordingly. You can start with a target such as 2L per day as general aim, but then modify according to your thirst, mood and urine colour.

A final note on hydration when it comes to exercise and performance. Depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise and temperature plus humidity in which it is performed, your hydration needs can increase by 2 or more liters. A handy monitoring tool is to measure your body weight before and after your exercise. Provided that your urine also indicates dehydration, for every gram under your starting body weight you can aim for a mL of fluid replacement e.g. you weighed 70kg before training and 69kg after; you would then aim to consume 1L of fluid during the 1-2 hours after the training ended. Of course your primary aim should be to hydrate properly during exercise, but it is most often not possible to replace all fluids lost during training. You also need to be careful to make sure that your fluid replacement drink contains proper amounts of electrolytes, particularly sodium. This especially true if you are exercising for a long period of time or competing in an endurance event such as a marathon. The problem of overhydration or hyponatremia, when the blood plasma levels of sodium get too low in the presence of relative excess amount of water, can occur if you miss this important step.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

Vitamins and minerals, or micro-nutrients, play a crucial role in all bodily functions. The body is amazing at maintaining homeostasis or meeting the immediate demands placed upon it. If we are lacking a certain vitamin or mineral in our regular food and fluid intake, our body will be able to initially handle the situation. However, if the lack of the nutrient continous for a long time, more regular problems will start arising and we will begin to notice symptoms  such as fatigue, slow recovery and poor sleep that show we are not functioning at our best. If the deficiency continues then of course more serious health problems will occur.

So how do we address this potential stumbling block?:

  1. Check if you are deficient or have any imbalances in the common vitamins, minerals and health markers by scheduling blood, urine or saliva testing. With the help of your doctor, you will then have a clear picture of what specific nutrients need to focus on correcting and, in the case of markers such as iron and vitamin D, will allow you to safely monitor fixing the problem.

  2. Don’t like needles or the more intensive testing process? No problem, you can also approach the situation in a more food or nutrient focused way by aiming to eat a wide variety colourful of fruit, vegetables and whole foods including meat, fish, nuts and seeds. The more variety, the better.

  3. Are you perhaps somewhere in between the two previous approaches listed above? In other words, you mostly eat a good variety of whole foods including colourful fruits and vegetables, but you know that you are probably not meeting all your needs. In this case, you can supplement with a few nutrients that commonly show up as deficiencies such as B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and, particularly in the Nordic region, vitamin D. By looking at the foods you eat, particularly how many portions of colourful fruits and vegetables you at, you may be able to see what is missing. For example if you focus on eating plant-based foods, it is quite possible you will not be getting enough iron if you are a female athlete. Using a service such as provided by the company Nordful can also be a good starting point with their questionnairre to assess what you may need based upon certain lifestyle and personal characteristics. You will then be able to take just the extra vitamins and minerals you actually need in addition to your normal food intake.

Low protein intake

This is a particularly common obstacle for women or those with a low appetite. Those who are new to plant-based eating may also initially struggle to meet their protein needs until they learn all of the options available to them. Protein-rich foods are filling and can keep you full for longer periods than the other food types, which can make it challenging for some people to get enough for their needs.

The way to address this obstacle is to first check how many servings of protein rich foods you are already eating. See below for a list of protein rich foods.

pasted image 0 (1).png

While protein needs do vary from person to person, if you are having one to two palm-sized portions of protein in each of your main meals (or 4-8 portions per day), you should be meeting your basic needs. For men, a good aim is two portions per meal and, for women, one portion. In part three of this article series we will look more at fine tuning protein intake to fit your individual needs more specifically.

Low essential fats

The final potential obstacle to having a strong nutritional foundation is consuming enough essential fats i.e. the omega 3 fats of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are known as essential because the body does not produce high quantities so we must consume them in our diet or with supplementation in order to meet our needs. They are important as they support cardiovascular health, brain development, the nervous system, the immune system and help control inflammation. If we can maintain as close to a 1:1 ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 fats, our cellular function is also more optimal. Omega 6 fats feature heavily in our diets via the plant oils found in many foods, so deliberating seeking adequate amounts of omega 3 in your diet is important. A good target is between 1-3g of EPA+DHA each day via fish oil or algae oil supplementation or eating fatty fish such as salmon.

Your nutrition template

Now that we have covered those four common stumbling blocks, we will now look at the template for giving yourself a starting point for your day to day eating in terms of what and how much to eat.

In the How to fix a broken diet infographic (download here), you will see three different body types with how much of each type of food to eat as a starting point. Before getting caught up with the details of each of the body types and under which type you fit (this will be covered in part three of this series), you can start by simply observing what it is that you are currently doing right now in your daily routine.

At each meal, you can use your hand to estimate how many portions of each food type you are eating and add up those portions for the day. To better familiarize yourself with the idea of using your hand as a measurement tool for quantities of each food type, you can see the picture guides below:

Portion of protein dense food (palm)

Portion of protein dense food (palm)

Portion of vegetables (fist)

Portion of vegetables (fist)

Portion of carbohydrate dense food (cupped hand)

Portion of carbohydrate dense food (cupped hand)

Portion of fats (thumb)

Portion of fats (thumb)

By becoming aware and assessing what you are doing right now, using your hands to assess portions, you will now have your base template and starting point for your nutrition foundation. Simple right? In other words, rather than trying to overhaul everything and attempting to already have a “perfect ´” foundation, you can set your foundation as exactly what you are doing right now. “But how can that be?” I hear you say! “I eat burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner; surely that is not right for my nutrition foundation?”. Sure, in the long term and in the context of your goals, you might not yet be as close as you would like to be to the nutrition habits that will progress you toward your goals. However, by starting where you are at right now, you can more easily assess, one thing at a time, what might be missing or less than ideal and adjust your foundation without making drastic and likely difficult to implement changes. By choosing one task, skill or habit to practice, based upon the most important thing that might be currently missing, you will have a much better chance to implement change  and not get stuck. You will be able to use the How to fix a broken diet as a reference point for your change decision-making. The point of choosing where you are at right now as your foundation is not about just making things simple; it is also about re-affirming that you are in charge and that there is a reason for the choices you are making right now. Many could well be relevant and good choices for your goals, and therefore can be built upon.

At this point you may be feeling a bit unclear of how to make the next step, so let’s recap and then lead into how to begin implementing changes:

  1. Look at the four stumbling blocks of proper hydration, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, low protein intake and low essential fats to see if one or more of these could be a challenge for you.

  2. Look at what you are current eating and estimate how much of each food type you are on average getting at each meal, or across the course of a day. This is your starting template and foundation

  3. Look at the How to fix a broken diet infographic resource and calorie control guide resources to see an outline of how much of each type of food you can be aiming to eat at each meal.

  4. Looking at your starting template, make a short list of what is missing or needs improvement from the stumbling blocks and infographic guide.

Implementing change - habit and skill practice

By now you should have a list of things you would like to implement or change. Lets say for example to see that you need to eat an additional one to two portions of protein each day, eat an additional three to four portions of vegetables and reduce your carbohydrate dense foods by three to four portions. You also eat a plant-based diet and know from blood testing that your iron levels are low. Each of those four things represent a nutrition target that may require one or more skills or habits to achieve.

To make a start, using the above example,  your first habit practice might be to take an iron supplement each day because it feels the easiest to implement right away. After a week or two of consistent practice you have gained momentum and you then aim to increase your vegetable intake. You start at lunch time by replacing the extra slice of bread you usually eat with two portions of vegetables at the work lunch room. You realize during the few weeks that you work on this habit, that you would like to learn more ways to prepare vegetables so that it would become easier to eat more vegetable portions at home. That then becomes your next skill practice (i.e. learn a new way to prepare vegetables for dinner). By default, you notice that by increasing vegetable portions, you have naturally reduced the extra portions of carbohydrate dense foods. This habit building process can continue then with protein portions.

As a general rule, choosing one very simple habit or skill practice at a time and working on it for a while (ideally more than a week or two) will allow you to both actually make it happen and also identify any obstacles that have been lurking unnoticed. During this time, practical skills like cooking, planning and preparing are often the most common practical obstacle to implenting changes.

To help inspire your meal ideas, here is the Stadifit cookbook with member and coach-inspired meals to try out:

At this point you will now have addressed those initial foundational nutrition targets and you will have noticed some changes and progres toward your goals. You will most likely be ready to fine tune things like portions and other goal-specific targets.

In the third and final part of this series, we will continue with the theme of habit and skill practice for implementing changes and the topic of fine tuning our approach with our outcome goals in mind. By going through the steps in this article, you will already be well on your way to reaching your goals in a sustainable way. Fine-tuning your foundational template further with your goals in mind, will then enable you troubleshoot and keep the steady progress toward your goals.

Lisa Koivunen