When it comes to improving your health and losing body fat, best results come from adopting powerful nutrition habits that allow you to take the stress and confusion out of nutrition. These are baseline nutrition skills that allow you to take control of what you put in your mouth and lay the groundwork for healthy eating. Here we cover ten critical nutrition skills that will transform your health and body composition if you adopt them today.
#1: Eliminate Sugar Sweetened Beverages—Duh!
Since NYC tried to implement a soda tax a few years ago, it seems like old news that we shouldn’t be drinking this stuff, but people still are.
Eliminating soda, juice, and other sugar-sweetened is your first line of defense for fixing your nutrition and it will have a profound effect on your health and body composition.
Sugar-sweetened beverages have zero nutritional benefit and they are the greatest provider of calories in the American diet. But these drinks don’t just provide empty calories: They have little impact on satisfying hunger so people can consume large quantities without reducing appetite. Another problem is the fact that because sugary beverages spike blood sugar, the body stores excess calories as fat in organs and around the abdominal area, raising risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cognitive degeneration.
Take Away: Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like they’re the plague—soda, sports drinks, juice, and sweetened coffee. Stick to plain water, tea, and coffee.
#2: Take Control of Alcohol Intake
If you’re like the average person, alcohol as a part of everyday life that functions as your go-to stress reliever. Relying on alcohol to cope with stress has several drawbacks, including the fact that it messes with your metabolism..
The good news is that limited alcohol consumption, such as a small glass of wine with dinner, can protect against obesity, especially in women. The bad news is that greater alcohol consumption, particularly beer, but also a large intake of liquor and wine, is predictive of fat gain.
After all, alcohol is calorie dense, containing 7 calories a gram compared to 4 in carbs and protein and 9 in fat. It also negatively affects glucose metabolism, increasing fat storage.
In addition, alcohol consumption tends to increase food intake, most likely by lowering inhibitions and increasing the feel-good effects of food. Finally, even a moderate hangover leads us to be less physically active and reduce energy expenditure, contributing to future fat gain.
Take Away: Be wise about alcohol, limiting its use to high-quality red wine with meals. Be mindful about portions when imbibing and stay away from beer and the hard stuff.
#3: Start Reading Ingredient Labels
When you first start reading ingredient labels, you’ll be shocked at how much sugar is added to processed and packaged foods. It’s even in foods you’d never dream need sugar: Turkey slices, salsa, and salad dressing are all foods that don’t need added sugar but that doesn’t stop food manufacturers from padding the calories with it.
You’ll also find that 95 percent of packaged foods contain a few select ingredients that are associated with obesity and health problems, such as soybean oil, wheat, corn, and various types of flour. Reading labels is the first step that will allow you to become more aware of what is in the food you’re eating so that down the road you can start to remove problematic ingredients.
Ingredients to watch out for include the following:
- Unhealthy fats from vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, safflower, and hydrogenated oils.
- Corn, soy, rice, and wheat, often in the form of protein, starch, or flour.
- Added sugar, which is identified by myriad names including dextrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, sugar, evaporated cane juice, barley malt, and rice syrup, to name a few.
- Artificial flavors and dyes.
- Sodium, MSG, carrageenan, gums, and other additives.
Take Away: Your ultimate goal will be to design meals around food that is in its most natural state, but first you need to get a handle on what ingredients you are putting into your body on a regular basis.
#4: Plan Meals Around Whole Foods
The average Westerner gets more than 50 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods, which supply 90 percent of added sugar intake. But processed foods aren’t just a problem because of the sugar. These are nutrient-poor foods that are engineered to stimulate food intake so that you eat more of them. They contain refined grains and processed fats, which spike blood sugar and cause inflammation throughout the body, but especially in blood vessels and the GI tract. Intake of these foods is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, and obesity.
Shifting away from processed foods to eat more whole foods usually requires a new approach to thinking about the food you eat. Processed foods are convenient, and eating whole food requires forethought and food preparation, but it’s worth the effort, paying off in terms of better health, more flavorful meals, and leaner body composition.
One study that compared the metabolic effect of a processed food meal with a whole food meal found that participants burned double the amount of calories during digestion when the ate the whole food meal. Equally significant is the fact that the participants who ate the processed food meal had their metabolic rates drop below their average basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the average energy needed to keep the body functioning at rest—during the sixth hour after eating. The whole food meal group never fell below the BMR
Take Away: When deciding what to eat, choose foods that fly (poultry), swim (seafood), run (beef and wild game), or grow on a tree or in a field (produce, nuts, seeds, and beans).
#5: Have Vegetables At Every Meal
Vegetables are a godsend for anyone trying to lose body fat, maintain their weight, or improve their health because they are packed with nutrients and water, contain loads of indigestible fiber, and are very low in calories so you can eat as much of them as you want.
Indigestible fiber is important because it helps promote fullness so you eat less, but it also feeds healthy bacteria in the gut for better digestion. This is extremely important because diets high in protein or those composed around processed foods and sugar lead to inflammation in the GI tract, which impairs absorption of nutrients and sets you up for nutrient deficiencies. It also increases risk of cancer and other diseases.
Start by eating at least two bites of vegetables at every meal, slowly increasing the amount as you get used to them. Research shows that whichever food we eat first ends up being the food we eat the most of for the meal.
Take Away: Starting meals with a rainbow of vegetables is an easy way to quell hunger with low energy, high-fiber foods that are packed with nutrition and highly delicious.
#6: Have Protein-Centric Meals
In our high-carb culture, it can be hard to design meals around whole proteins, but eating the right amount of protein is a simple way to shore up your defenses against triggers that trip you up when trying to establish good habits. There are four reasons higher protein diets lay the groundwork for future dietary changes:
Eating protein promotes lean muscle mass by triggering protein synthesis (literally, eating protein builds muscle in the same way lifting weights does).
The body burns more calories processing protein than carbs or fat.
Protein is filing and it provides the building blocks for optimal brain function and motivation.
High-quality protein improves your hormonal response to a meal, helping to manage blood sugar and insulin so you avoid cravings for sugar.
The key to optimizing your protein intake is to choose whole sources instead of foods that don’t normally contain protein but have it added to them. “Yes” to chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, fish, eggs, plain Greek yogurt, dairy, beans, lentils, and nuts, but “no” to cereal, protein bars, protein-added yogurt, bread, crackers, and so on.
Take Away: Planning meals around protein (especially breakfast!) is an easy way to get your hunger under control and set yourself up for healthier food choices all day long.
#7: When Eating Out, Make Menu Choices In Advance
We’ve all been there: We have good intentions when going out to eat, but as our stomachs are growling we make indulgent food choices and end up eating more calories than we need due to the excessive portions and abundant bread.
Restaurants are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to adding sugar and cooking with unhealthy fats and carbs. Now that restaurants are required to post calorie counts on meals, it’s possible to see the damage most dishes due to your energy needs: One study found that the average restaurant meal contained 1,205 calories, which is more than half the daily requirements for the average person. Of all meals tested 92 percent supplied more calories than the amount needed in a single meal (570 calories was the amount designated as appropriate for a single meal).
To avoid falling prey to this nonsense you need to always have a plan when eating out. First, scope out the menu in advance and consider possible options, gravitating towards dishes that prioritize whole protein and vegetables. Look for ways to lower the calorie content and consider which unhealthy ingredients you may not want to eat. Something as simple as asking for salad dressing on the side or having your fish cooked with lemon instead of a buttery sauce can save you hundreds of calories.
If you do choose higher calorie, indulgent dishes, eat only half of the portion, and if you feel comfortable, ask for a to-go container at the beginning of the meal. Putting half the meal aside can create a “road bump” to keep you from mowing down the entire meal.
Take Away: Take control of food intake when eating out by scoping out the menu in advance and making careful food choices that allow you to stick to your goals.
#8: Establish A Set Meal Frequency & Eat At The Same Time Daily
Intermittent fasting (IF) has hit the mainstream, which has led many people to try it but fail. IF can be a fantastic tool for managing body composition, but you need to already be pretty savvy about nutrition and establish healthy eating for maximal success.
With the popularity of snacking and the ever-presence of high calorie foods at our fingertips, most people are literally eating all day long, leaving little time for digestion or metabolic regulation between meals. Not only does this mean their bodies are unable to effectively maintain energy levels so that they avoid peaks and valley in blood sugar, but the brain is tuned to constantly seek food and people aren’t comfortable with the sensation of being hungry.
Establishing set meal times and eating at the same time daily is the first step to success with IF. This will give your digestive system a chance to rest in between meals and align the circadian rhythms of key metabolic organs, such as the pancreas and liver, for optimal function. It also allows you to get comfortable with hunger and trains your body to regulate energy levels in a fasted state.
The number of meals and timing will depend on individual factors, but most people who are new to healthy eating benefit from 3 to 4 meals a day within a 10 to 12 hour window. For example, once you’ve gotten used to eating at 8 am, 12 pm, 4 pm, and 7 pm, you could play with extending your overnight fast or reducing your meals but novices need to start with structure and give their bodies a chance to get their metabolic machinery in order.
Take Away: Eating according to a schedule allows you to take advantage of your body’s natural circadian rhythm, optimizing metabolic function and helping you get your food intake under control.
#9: Get A Handle On Portions With A Food Journal
There are many benefits of a food journal, but most people are reluctant to actually do them. You might think you are cognizant of what and how much they eat, but you probably have no idea. This is evident in countless studies that show people underestimate calorie intake by a minimum of 500 calories a day. Being as this is the amount most people are recommended to cut from their diets when trying to lose body fat, you can see why so few people are successful with weight loss.
A first step to healthy eating and weight management is to correctly identify what and how much you are eating. A food journal can help you estimate calories as well as the other macronutrients, which is important because in order to use more advanced body composition management tools, you need to be able to play with calories, carbs, protein, and fat. Calorie counting doesn’t have to be a long-term part of weight management but you need to have the ability to estimate calories and have some idea of what you’re consuming before you can focus on more useful nutritional aspects.
Take Away: An honest food journal will allow you to get a handle on what you are putting in your body so that you can troubleshoot problems and come up with ways to optimize your nutrition.
#10: Establish An Exercise Habit
It’s completely possible to lose body fat without exercising, but it is SO much easier if you work out. Weight management is hard enough that you want to do everything possible to improve you chance of success. Exercise has a powerful impact, building muscle, improving fat burning, boosting mood, and burning calories.
There are many training tools that can improve fat loss and weight management, such as the ones covered in this article, but first you need to establish an exercise habit. The number one key to success with exercise is consistency, so you need to identify a regular training time that works for you. It’s recommended that you exercise a minimum of 2 days a week, with 4 to 5 days being ideal for most people. If you’re a complete novice, start with 2 days a week of 20 to 30 minutes of walking. Over time you can increase you time, frequency, and add intervals or strength training.
Take Away: Exercise makes everything about life better: Better metabolic function, improved sleep, better mood, commitment to goals, and improved body composition.