Sometimes starting is the hardest part. I hear it all the time from my clients. And honestly, I go through it too. For me, I have found that creating a plan and taking that initial baby step forward is the best (and maybe only) way out of this sometimes-paralyzing place. I teach a 2-hour workshop on just this topic. And it’s always one of my favorites. So, I wanted to share today an easy step-by-step plan to building your foundation of nutrition and health.
So often we get caught up in the latest research or article on fish oil supplements, or this mushroom powder, or that one antioxidant rich fruit. It can get overwhelming and disorienting. Where do you start?
I’m here to tell you, you don’t need any superfoods, magic herbal powders or expensive supplements to be healthy. Sure, they have a time and a place. Sure, they can be fun and you can see real results. But it can often be confusing on what to choose, not to mention expensive. Nor do you don’t need to make these huge over-hauls all at once. In fact, I often find this leads to in-action, frustration and throwing in the towel before any real results, changes or habits are made.
First off, I want to start by saying that health and wellness is more than just nutrition. It’s more than not being sick or the absence of disease. Being healthy is not something that happens to us or simply because of our genes. Health is a choice. It’s about choosing what’s best for ourselves, not the person sitting next to us, regarding our body, mind and spirit.
This article focuses on nutrition and a few simply and easy foundational principles, mostly because, well, that’s what I do, I am a nutritionist. I believe and know that the food we consume has real power to give our body, mind and spirit either health or havoc. I also understand, you can’t really talk about health and wellness without touching on a few other lifestyle foundational tips as well, it’s not just about food.
So, let’s get started!
1. Assess where you are.
I can guarantee you that, every one of you reading this is going to be at a different spot. Some of you may smoke a pack or two of cigarettes a day and other may be completing in triathlons and drinking turmeric lattes. I say this without any judgement to where you are. Believe me, I’ve probably been there too! This is also why personalized nutrition and health are so important. So let’s assess where you are right now in your life. You might want to jot a few answers to these question in a journal, mostly for your own record, it’s always nice to revisit where you came from and how much you’ve evolved over time. A few things to think about, where you are in relation to:
Food and nutrition? Do you feel you eat too much sugar or processed, packaged foods? Do you have your vegetable consumption down?
How’s your movement or activity level?
Sleep? How many hours are you getting a night? Do you wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day?
Do you smoke or drink alcohol, and how much? Are you on medications of any kind? Or have any other behaviors or habits that might not be serving you?
What your mood or daily energy levels like? Are you generally upbeat and positive? Or often feel anxious, depressed or irritable?
Do you have a great community or support group?
2. Make small steps
After accessing where you are right now, it’s time to talk about some foundations of nutrition and general wellness. Despite everyone being in a different place, here are a couple foundations of nutrition that can benefit everyone:
Eat a balanced diet – I learned from a fellow nutritionist the idea of what a “balanced’ plate of food might look like (see image to right).
First let’s start with defining what macronutrients are. Your macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. I used to count macros for all my clients. Then I quickly realized this method of counting anything, calories included, is not a great model for many, especially those that want a more balanced and uncomplicated way of eating nutritiously.
So, this balanced plate is great for that, here’s how it’s divided up:
Carbohydrates – Whole food carbs provide us with energy, plus a wide variety of vitamins and minerals our body and cells need to thrive. Most people think being on a low carb diet is equals healthy. But you know what? Veggies and fruits are all in this carb category! Instead of focusing on “low carb” what people could say is that they are on a low processed food diet. But please keep those fruits and veggies, carbs and all in your diet!
An easy way to think about this: load ½ your plate up with non-starchy veggies, raw, roasted, steamed, however you like them. Non-starchy veggies are things like cucumbers, leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, celery, cauliflower, mushrooms, and more!
Next, aim for ¼ of your plate to be starchy vegetables or whole grains. Starchy veggies are going to be things like your root vegetables, like squashes, sweet potatoes, green peas, carrots, beets, plantains, potatoes. Or whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, spelt, and more.
Protein – These are the literal building blocks of our bones, muscles, skin hair, cartilage and blood! Our bodies use protein to repair and rebuild our muscles and tissues, especially in times of stress. It also helps us make enzymes and hormones. Despite all these great benefits, American’s tend to eat too much protein, and in general too much animal protein. Now I am not saying you need to be vegetarian or vegan, I surly am not, and think this diet is only good for a very small portion of the population. So, a great rule of thumb, is to aim for a ¼ of your plate protein, or you can think about the size of your palm. For women or shorter men that’s generally around 3-5 oz. For men or taller women that’s generally 5-7 oz. Quality protein can either be animal based, like grass-fed/finished meat, pasture-raised eggs and fowl, bison, cold-water wild-caught fish, or it can be plant-based in the form of whole grains, legumes, some nuts and seeds and the occasional soy. I am not dogmatic about my diet, I eat what I feel like and try to be conscientious about my animal intake quality and quantity as well as variety or protein. There are days I eat no meat and days I have animal protein at every meal. Aim for balance and what feels good to you!
Fat – Our body needs fat to function. We also know now that fat doesn’t make us fat. But in fact, can help us lose weight (hello keto and paleo diets). Fat not only helps keep us full and satisfied longer, and is needed for absorbing our fat-soluble nutrients. It also helps our body make, build and balance hormones, maintain healthy heart and brain function and gives us energy and helps repair our cells. The thing with fat is that while I don’t like to count calories, we need to acknowledge that fat is 9 calories per gram while carbs and protein are both 4 calories per gram. That means that we need less of it from a quantity on the plate stand point to equal the same amount of “energy” in our body. So, though it looks like we are get little fat here, we are actually getting a good amount. Aim for 1-2 tablespoons of a quality fat per meal. This can be quality oils like olive, avocado, coconut or avocado, coconut meat, olives, nuts and seeds.
Now as you can see some foods cross-label lines or some non-starchy veggies might also have some starch in them. Don’t get too hung up on hard-fast rules and lines. This is a guideline to help get your started on what a balanced plate could look like. Dont’ get too hung up on the “plate”, it can work as a bowl, smoothies, soup, you name it, the formula will be the same. This is great start to letting go of some of the rigid rules and regulations we have put on ourselves in the name of being healthy. Part of this process is trying new things, learning what you like, getting in tune with your body and mind and listening to what you want to eat in the moment. We are all changing all the time, from month to month, week to week, day to day, minute to minute. So re-evaluate often. Make sure what you are doing still works for you.
Hydration – Wanna hear something crazy? Water is more important for our body's survival than food. A person can survive without food for more than a month (hello crazy juice cleanse), but we can only live without water for about one week. Lack of water, or dehydration, reduces the amount of blood in your body, forcing your heart to pump harder to deliver oxygen-bearing cells to your muscles. Your body is approximately 60 percent water, your brain is 70 percent water, your lungs are nearly 90 percent water. Each day, your body must replace 2.4 liters through ingested liquid and foods, plus over night while we sleep we lose about a pound of water just by breathing out moisture.
A great rule of thumb here is to consume at least ½ your weight in ounces of water daily. For example, if you are 150 pounds you would aim to consume 75 ounces of water daily. Now, make sure to consider things like how much you sweat or your daily activity, how hot it is out and how much caffeine and alcohol you drink.
If you are thirsty you are already dehydrated! Trying investing in a quality, non-BPA water bottle and use that as your guide to how much water you drink daily. You can also fill it up with flavors like cucumber, lemon, mint, and more, so you don’t get bored.
Sleep – This one is so important that if you take one thing away from here, it’s if you aren’t getting quality sleep between 7-9 hours daily, it doesn’t really matter what else you do here, how good you eat, how much you move, how well you hydrate. YOU MUST SLEEP WELL!!! Sleep is where the body supports detoxification, resets our blood sugar, and generally repairs our body and mind! There are a few good rules around best sleep practices. I could write an entire post on it. But a few generally good rules to get you started:
Have a routine – your body and mind respond best when they have a consistent time to go to bed and wake up, yup this include the weekends too.
Sleep in a dark room or get some eye covers
Stay away from blue light (computers, phones, tablets, tv, etc.) about 30-90 minutes before bed time. Blue light has been show to disrupt our production of melatonin in our brain and can inhibit sleep and mess with our circadian rhythms. Try picking up a magazine or book to read or even some nidra yoga or mediation before bedtime.
Movement – There’s no question movement is good for our bodies and minds. It helps with good heart health, moods and metabolism, and so much more. It’s finding the right balance and type of movement for you that’s key here. Depending on where you are coming from you can be going strong on high-intensity workouts, training for marathons or going for a nice walk outside with your pups or doing some quality yoga. Find what works for you. A few guidelines:
If you are new to movement or recovering from something that left you immobile for a bit, start small, 20-30 minutes of low-intensity movement is great, like walking or gentle yoga, 2-4 times a week is a great place to start.
I you are already working it 4-6 times a week at a pretty good pace and feeling good, try something new. The guys over at Mind Pump say whatever you aren’t doing, is what you need to be doing. Our bodies are efficient machines and great at adapting to what we regularly do, so switching it up will work new muscles and your brain working better and challenge you and your body to grow.
No matter who and where you are: if it leaves you exhausted please back off! This will cause more stress on your body, further imbalance your blood sugar and hormones.
Stress Management – I used to call this stress reduction, but it’s not about removing or reducing stress, more than it is about management. The reasons this is so important is that when we are stressed we turn on the sympathetic nervous system in our bodies, aka our “fight or flight”. When this happens we physically can’t digest our food, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate goes up, our muscles get tense, we use up our stores of vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium and B vitamins, just for starters. It’s ok to have stress in our lives. Stress is a great motivator, it’s what helps us to build muscles at the gym, or overcome an obstacle and achieve things in life, contributing to happiness, success and fulfillment. It’s not about removing stress, it’s about managing it. Taking the things in our life that cause us stress, especially on an ongoing basis and shifting our perspective on them and how we react is really where it’s at. The number one way to do this is by asking yourself a simple question: am I going to remember this in a few hours or days? If the answer is probably not, then let yourself literally let it go. Another way to shift your perspective on a stressor is to laugh at it. Now, I am not saying this is easy. It’s not. Most likely this will take a lot of conscious practice before you’ve got it down.
Another way to reduce stress and improve our mood is to adopt a positive mental attitude is necessary! I believe that innately we all want to be the best person we can. And this starts with taking personal responsibility for our current situation, reactions, and overall health. A great way to cultivate this is to start becoming an optimist, cultivating awareness of how we talk to ourselves, have positive affirmations, visualizations and goals and actions. And not take it all so seriously. Laughing at ourselves and with others is a great place to start as well! This is and sleep to me at the biggest reasons for failing health. So if you aren’t sure where to start. You can start with one or both of those.
Lastly, another great way to reduce stress is with self-care. This is pretty popular right now, and I am so glad that it is. It’s really important. Taking time to be with ourselves or others you love if you choose. You can also find things that help you relax like listening to your favorite music, singing along in the car, cooking, taking a bath, going for a walk, listening to your favorite podcast or audio book, meditating, getting a massage, spending time with your pets, lay outside in the sun, etc. Whatever you love to do and will make time to do, do it!
3. Take the first step.
I know that’s a lot of information above. Don’t worry, it’s not there to overwhelm you. It’s there to guide you. I know you are probably sick of hearing me say it, but because we are all in different spots and different people we will want and need to start somewhere different.
Your job today is to pick 1-2 things you’d like to work on in the next 2-4 weeks. Sometimes 2-4 weeks can be plenty time to see results, sometimes isn’t enough time and you will need more. Allow your body time to heal and feel real change, and don’t hold any judgments on how long or little time it takes. Something that’s easy for you may be hard for someone else, and visa versa. Neither is better or wrong. It simply is.
Header image via Unsplash by Joanna Kosinska