To keep things simple we are not going to get into a deep conversation of which diet is best, which supplements to take or if you should be a vegetarian. What we are going to talk about is a framework you can use to help guide you in making a purposeful choice of what to eat and when to eat it. The reason it is hard to recommend a particular diet or way of eating is that certain foods affect people in different ways so what is right for one person could be wrong for another. It is a lot like the way we look at training plans; not every athlete can follow the same plan.
When you look at the popular “healthy” diets (Mediterranean, Vegan, Paleo, etc...) they all recommend eating whole natural foods and generally exclude processed foods. Where these “healthy" diets differ from one-another is that each of them include/exclude certain whole natural foods such as meat, grains. This is an example of how what works for one person may not work for another based on your body's personal chemical foundation. From all the reading I have done over the years on diets and nutrition I have come up with my own easy 5 x 5 Rule: If a piece of food can live on your kitchen counter for more than 5 days try not to eat it. If the food comes in a package then try and keep the ingredient list on the package to 5 ingredients or less.
Keeping the 5 x 5 Rule in mind I try to fill my house with whole natural foods as much as possible BUT if I do need to buy processed food I just keep the ingredient list as short as possible.
Keeping in mind that we are keeping this as simple as possible in this article we are going to look at food as providing us two things; fuel (carbs, protein, fat) and nutrients (vitamins, minerals). I will use bread and spinach as an example, both bread and spinach can provide us with fuel (carbohydrates) but spinach will provide us with a lot more nutrients (vitamins, minerals) than bread. So if I was eating for fuel I could choose to eat either 100 calories of bread or 100 calories of spinach. Both will provide me with 100 calories of carbohydrates so both are considered a good source of fuel. If I was eating for nutrients then I would choose the 100 calories of spinach over the 100 calories of bread because the spinach is loaded with a lot more vitamins and minerals than the bread. Eating for just fuel; bread and spinach are equal. Eating for nutrients; spinach is better than bread. See how simple it can be!
By keeping our thought of food to simply providing either fuel or nutrients then it will help guide our food choices at a given time. When you walk into the kitchen to grab something to eat ask yourself “Why am I eating? Do I need to fuel my body or do I need to repair my body?”. That question will help drive you toward making an appropriate food choice. If you are eating for fuel then the nutritional quality of the food is not as important; if you are eating to repair your body then the nutritional quality of the food is super important.
I break my daily nutrition down into four main phases that help me understand when I need to eat, what I need from the food and why it is important. The chart below breaks the four phases down in a simple format.
To see how these four phases fit into daily life you can look at it in a 24 hour clock. Below are two examples of a sample day; one with a single long workout and another day in which there are two workouts in a single day.
Day 1: 4 hour long bike ride 7:00 am-11:00 am.
6 am-7 am - Pre-Workout Phase - Fuel for the upcoming ride - Doesn’t have to be an overly nutritional meal as the goal is to just get the calories in.
7 am-11 am - Workout Session Phase - Fuel during the ride - Goal is to eat to fuel the ride, depending on your weight and effort level you may take in 00-350 calories per hour. Again the nutritional quality is not important the calories are.
11 am-3 pm - Post-Workout Phase - Fuel to replace calorie deficit - Workout was 4 hours so you have a 4 hour window where the main goal is to replace the calories that were not eaten during the workout. So fuel is the main priority here BUT since it is a long window I would also be more nutritionally aware towards the end of this phase.
3 pm-6 am - Recovery/Rebuild Phase - Nutrients are key for the next 15 hours. This is the time I need to give my body the vitamins and minerals it needs to repair the damage I did during the workout. This is when the nutritional quality of the food is so important. It is time to choose the spinach over the bread.
Day 2: 1 hour session at 7 am, 1 hour session 6 pm
6 am-7 am: Pre-Workout Phase - Fuel for the upcoming workout.
7 am-8 am: Workout Session Phase - Fuel if needed to be successful. The workout is only 60 min so I may or may not fuel during.
8 am-9 am: Post-Workout Phase - This is a 1 hour window where you need to replace the calorie deficit you created during the workout; so depending on if you fueled during the workout or not will also affect how much you need to fuel here.
9 am-5 pm: Recovery/Rebuild Phase - Nutrients are key to rebuild the damage you have done.
5 pm-6 pm: Pre-Workout Phase - Am I properly fueled for the upcoming workout? If not, let's get some calories in. Don't just eat to eat; if you don't need to fuel don't.
6 pm-7 pm: Workout Session - Fuel as needed to be successful in the workout.
7 pm-8 pm: Post-Workout Phase - Fuel to replenish the calorie deficit you created. Now it is very late at night and this may be my last window to eat so I would probably lean toward more nutrient rich foods to help me fuel as well as repair.
8 pm-6 am- Recovery/Rebuild Phase - If you are still awake and hungry it is about nutrients; skip the ice cream and have some fruit.
If we can understand the “Why” we are eating then it is a lot easier to choose the “What” and "When" we should eat. When you stop and think about it nutrition is not that hard to figure out; just keep it simple and don’t get caught in the ever changing details. There will be a constant argument of what is healthy vs. not healthy; what diet is best for this type of person vs. that type of person, eat the yolk vs. don’t eat the yolk. Just like training there is not a single plan for everyone; each person needs to find their own solution. Above is my framework, the foods I choose to insert into that framework is my own personal solution. This article is not about giving you a solution; it is about giving you a framework to help you figure out your solution.
Bottom line is that nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated, the human species is 2 million years old. We figured out how to stay alive before celebrity diets, supplements and sports nutrition products existed. Just keep in mind why you are about to eat and it should help you decide what to eat. The world will never fully agree on what is and is not healthy, that is up to you to decide for yourself. You need to eat properly for your body, your training plan, your goals; not somebody else’s. You need to eat with purpose.