4 Elements of Basic Nutrition

Posted February 20, 2017 by

Before you can run, you must walk. Likewise, before you can optimize and perfect your diet, you must fully understand the basic elements of nutrition and how they affect your health and results.

The good news is that basic nutrition is both simple and effective. It’s true that the fitness industry has hopelessly over-complicated nutrition in an effort to justify product differentiation (e.g. “my nutrition system is SO effective because it covers these 3 ‘secret tricks’ that nobody else knows!!!”) that many people feel like they need a master’s degree just to take care of themselves at a basic level.

This is not the case. The fact is I can teach you everything you need to know to cover basic nutrition in about 10 minutes, which I am going to do with this very article.

What can you accomplish with basic nutritional knowledge?

For one, you can significantly reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, stroke–the list goes on. You can make noticeable changes to your physique, particularly with fat loss (muscle gain requires proper nutrition but also largely depends on your training). You can improve all sorts of health markers and have better sleep, an improved feeling of well-being and less pain.

These are just a few of the benefits. Let’s dig into the four foundational areas of nutrition and how to implement proper habits to cover each area.

Element 1: Calories

Behind it all, it comes down to calories. Calories is a measurement of energy–and energy is required by all living things (plants and animals) to subsist. As you probably know, plants receive energy from sunlight via photosynthesis. Animals require energy in the form of food.

In other words, everything that you eat that contains calories is used by your body for energy–either to power bodily functions, to meet the needs of activity (such as exercise), or to be stored as body fat if there is a surplus.

The amount of calories you eat per day (and really, the weekly and monthly averages) is what determines if you gain, lose or maintain your weight. This is crucial to understand–nothing else is as important as overall calories when it comes to body weight. Want to lose weight? Eat fewer calories than you burn. Want to gain? Eat a greater number of calories than you burn. Want to maintain? Eat the same amount of calories as you burn.

Element 2: Macros, Fiber and Water

I group all three of these together because all of them require a relatively high intake per day.

There are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat. Beyond their basic role as energy-providers (since each macronutrient provides calories), protein is responsible for muscle building/repair, carbohydrates is your body’s preferred source of energy for activity, and fats help regulate hormones, provide satiety (fullness) and make things more tasty.

There is overlap between each macronutrient on their roles (e.g. carbohydrates have an effect on specific hormones as well) but their primary roles are as noted above. As you can see, each macronutrient has a critical role in the body, and thus there is no good reason to eliminate an entire macronutrient from your diet.

Fiber is a subset of carbohydrates, but separated because it’s largely indigestible–your body only gets a small amount of calories from certain forms of fiber. Fiber’s main roles are related to gut health, intestinal motility/fecal bulk (how quickly/much you poop) and removal of toxic byproducts via the colon. Soluble fiber also reduces the “bad” form of cholesterol, LDL. We typically recommend an intake of at least 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories.

Finally, we have water. As our bodies are composed of roughly 70% water, you can understand how important it is to maintain our hydration levels. We lose water through our sweat and urine, so it’s crucial to replace that water in our bodies. A good rule of thumb is to drink 2/3 of your body weight in ounces of water per day, plus 20-40 additional ounces per hour of hard activity.

Micronutrients and Supplements

Just as macronutrients are elements we require in relatively large amounts, micronutrients are elements we require in relatively small amounts. However, they’re just as crucial to our health as any other piece of the nutritional puzzle. Micronutrients include both vitamins and minerals. Many of these are found in the foods we eat, particularly vegetables and fruits–which is one major reason it’s important to eat a lot of them each day.

Micronutrients that we’re not able to get enough of in our diet should be supplemented, which is why I have grouped both of these into the same category. For instance, if you do not consume enough sources of calcium in your diet, you can supplement with calcium tablets to meet your daily needs. The same is true with any other micronutrient.

There are other forms of supplements that don’t quite fall into the micronutrient category, nor are they absolutely necessary for basic health. These include things like creatine, BCAAs and stimulants like caffeine or ephedrine. These items can be considered ergogenic aids that provide specific benefits in specific situations, but for basic health are either not required by the body, or at the very least don’t demand supplementation outside of regular dietary intake.

Nutrient Timing

Nutrient timing is a concept that has been blown way out of proportion by the fitness industry. You’ve got gurus claiming that you cannot get lean without eating 6 small meals per day. You’ve got others saying that you have to fast for the first 8 hours that you’re awake and only eat foods during a 4 hour window. Heck, I’ve even seen a website that claims that eating one enormous meal per day is “THE WAY” to get super lean and ripped.

For the most part, any benefits that might be had by optimal timing of meals is so minuscule that unless you’re an advanced athlete, you wouldn’t notice any difference at all. It’s a waste of energy and focus that could be put towards ensuring you’re sticking to the basics–getting enough water, vegetables, protein and overall calories each day (and sleep!).

That being said, there is one exception, which is protein. Much of the current research in the nutrition field that focuses on protein intake as it relates to body composition, strength and general performance has shown that while breaking your protein intake down into hourly feedings is overkill and provides no benefits, there is some level of benefit to dividing your daily protein intake amongst your meals for the day and trying to eat at least every 4-5 hours.

In other words, if you’re aiming to consume 150g of protein per day, and are going to eat 3 meals per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), then you would want approximately 50g of protein at each of those meals. Obviously, this doesn’t have to be exact, but there’s a benefit to having some protein at each feeding versus having meals that only consist of carbs and fat, and trying to eat all of your protein in one huge feeding.

This is because the body does not store protein the same way it does carbs and fats–thus you need to provide somewhat of a regular stream of protein for the body to use as it sees fit.

To wrap this all up, you should focus on:

  • the amount of calories you eat per day
  • what those calories break down into in terms of protein, carbohydrates and fat
  • the amount of fiber and water you consume per day
  • getting enough vegetables and fruits in your diet so that you’re meeting your micronutrient needs
  • breaking your daily intake into a convenient number of meals for you (preferably at least 3), and consuming a roughly equal portion of protein at each of those meals

Starting working towards optimal health doesn’t need to be a daunting task. The above information alone will take you 90% of the way to most any goal you have. Start by mastering the building blocks above, and only then begin to look for additional ways to tailor your nutritional approach to your goals and situation.

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