When it comes to putting together meals, I have always found it best to simplify things as much as possible. Nutrition as a whole is something that can be daunting, given the fact that new research is constantly coming out, and it is nearly impossible to keep up with what is currently considered “healthy” and “not healthy.” Therefore, sticking to the basics is always a safe bet.
Although nutrition is largely a personal endeavor, there are some foolproof ways to make sure you are hitting the basics with your meal construction. That being said, this is a step-by-step guide I have developed to figure out how to build the perfect meal for you.
Step 1: Establish Goals
This is the most important step. Everything else hinges upon the decisions made in this step. Are you trying to lose fat? Gain muscle? Optimize for brain health? Optimize for athletic performance? Increase energy? Many times a few of these goals can be tackled at once, but it is important to determine priorities first.
Once your goals are established, you can make a few general decisions. For example, if your goal is to lose fat, you know your portions for meals need to be a little smaller, and definitely reduced in EITHER fat or carbs. If you are interested in gaining muscle, you will need to increase the quantity of food, specifically protein and carbs. For brain optimization, fat should be increased. For athletic performance carbs should be increased.
Step 2: Estimate Portions
Some people measure or weigh their food. This is ultimately a waste of time, since even the most accurate calculations can still be up to 30% off in total calories. There are many flaws with the concept of counting calories. Instead, ballpark estimates of portions for various macronutrients work best.
The three macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat. When setting up a plate, the default should always be to think of a plate divided into thirds. One third should be protein, one third should be carbs, and one third should be veggies (veggies are often “carriers” for fat, since they are often cooked in olive oil, coconut oil, butter, etc). If each third is roughly the size of your closed fist, you will have a solid meal in place.
Now, if you take into account your goals, some of those ratios may change a bit, and adjustments should be made accordingly. Maybe your portions are a bit smaller, maybe they are a bit larger, and maybe a solid dose of healthy fats gets added on top. However, when in doubt, dividing the plate into 3 fist-sized portions of protein, carbs, and vegetables will never steer you wrong.
Step 3: Focus on Nutrient Density
After goals and portions are determined, we need to now look at the quality of the ingredients Getting the macronutrients set is a great first step. When we figure out how to eat the right amounts of protein, carbs, and fat, we can control our weight effectively and manage overall intake. However, if we then want to begin optimizing for overall health, we need to look at the lesser-known components of our food: the micronutrients.
Beyond protein, carbs, and fat, our food is comprised of many other nutrients; vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K, magnesium, selenium, zinc, copper, iron, and others all fit into this category. Certain foods are significantly more dense in these nutrients than others. For example, you could get two foods with identical macronutrient compositions but vastly different micronutrient profiles. For example, you could make a salad with enough ingredients that it fits the same protein, carbs, and fat pattern as a Big Mac, but the salad will still be considered “healthier” since it will be loaded with micronutrients.
The perfect combination, however, would be finding a way to achieve the proper macronutrient combinations while also maximizing the total intake of diverse micronutrients. These micronutrients really cannot be monitored or tracked closely like a macronutrient, so it is tougher to manage. What people typically focus on with micronutrients is what is called “micronutrient diversity.” The goal is to make sure a wide array of different micronutrients are consumed relatively regularly. The best way to practice this is to eat as many different colors as possible. (Note: This does not mean foods that areartificially colored differently. It means foods that are naturally different colors). So when you are in the produce section of the grocery store, get some orange carrots, purple cabbage, green kale, red tomatoes, yellow peppers, and so on. This helps ensure that a wide array of nutrients are consumed regularly.
Step 4: Add Supplements (Optional)
There are a variety of supplements that can dramatically improve health, but it is important to remember that they are add-ons to an already healthy diet, not band-aids for a poor diet. So if steps 1, 2 and 3 are properly executed, and the meal is arranged in a way that optimizes overall health, it could then be advantageous to add supplements on top of that.
Some examples of supplements here could be fish oil (I typically take 1g of fish oil with all three meals I eat during the day), various vitamins in supplement form (many people are deficient in Vitamin D and could benefit from supplementation), or other supplements recommended by a doctor or nutritionist. There are many health food supplements out there, and a lot of them are scams, so it is important to be careful when selecting any supplements to add to a nutrition plan.
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If you follow these four steps consistently when putting meals together, you will find that any issues you have had in the past about nutrition being too complicated to gradually ease up. Each step here is relatively simple, and if we keep the concepts of nutrition as simple as possible, it will be much easier for us to maintain consistent and healthy practices.