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Practical Philosophy for Navigating Nutrition
Discarding false diet beliefs and setting the foundation for a lifelong eating strategy.
Ground Zero: Breaking False Diet Beliefs
Diet wars are fueled by the underlying assumption that there is one diet that works best for everyone.
That is absolutely, positively false.
There is no one diet that is best for everyone.
In fact, we know very little for certain about nutrition. Definitely not enough to say that everyone should follow a vegan or carnivore or keto or fill-in-the-blank diet.
I dislike the word diet entirely.
Let’s throw out that word and all of the false beliefs and assumptions that come with it and instead refer to what and how we eat as our eating strategy.
Better yet, your eating strategy.
How you eat should be based on what works for your body and your goals, and, most importantly, what you can stick to day after day, week after week, and month after month.
You need to eat well for your entire lifetime—playing in the extremes won’t get you there.
Figuring out what your highly personalized eating strategy should look like comes down to trial and error, gathering data and listening to proven science, and tuning in to how you feel.
It’s also important to differentiate how a healthy person should eat to maintain good health versus how someone in poor health or a diseased state should eat to improve their situation and set them on track to better health.
Just as you wouldn’t give chemotherapy to someone who doesn’t have cancer, the nutrition of a healthy person probably shouldn’t resemble that of someone who is working to restore their health via nutritional intervention.
Three Questions to Inform Your Personalized Eating Strategy
According to longevity expert Dr. Peter Attia in his bestseller Outlive, your personalized nutrition strategy should be shaped by three questions:
Are you undernourished or overnourished?
Are you undermuscled or adequately muscled?
Are you metabolically healthy or not?
In the general population, the challenge most people face is being overnourished and undermuscled which is strongly correlated to poor metabolic health.
If you fall into this category, the solution is to find a sustainable way of eating that enables you to eat fewer calories and more protein, while also engaging in strength-building exercise.
Undernourished individuals generally do not consume enough protein to sustain an adequate amount of muscle mass.
This presents a huge problem considering the shocking amount of muscle we naturally lose with age.
A useful rule of thumb whether you’re under- or overnourished is that your eating strategy should not compromise your muscle mass.
What We Know For Certain: The Four Laws of Nutrition
Despite many social media diet gurus who appear to have nutrition all figured out, easily identifiable by their bold claims and ignorance of science, nuance, and common sense, we actually know very little about nutrition with certainty.
As Dr. Attia highlights in Outlive, there are only four things we can state with certainty—or as close to certainty as one can get in science—about nutrition.
Law #1: Don’t eat too many calories, or too few.
To figure out how much is too much or how few is too few, it’s important to know your maintenance calorie intake.
This number estimates how many calories you burn in an average day based on your height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.
To calculate your maintenance intake, you have a few options:
Read this explanation I wrote and plug your numbers into the provided formulas.
Google “calorie calculator” and plug your info into a few sites. (IIFYM was my go-to in my bodybuilding days, although I haven’t used it in a while so cannot attest to its accuracy).
To find the most accurate number possible, I suggest following all three methods and then taking the average or the most frequently occurring number (the mode) of your results.
What is too many? What is too few?
Your strategy should be highly personalized and based on your goals as well as your answers to the three key questions stated above.
If you’re overnourished and undermuscled, for example, a good goal would be to eat less than your maintenance intake, in the neighborhood of 200 to 500 calories less, while also consuming more protein, with the target of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
If you’re already in great shape, meaning that you are not under- or overnourished and are adequately muscled and metabolically healthy, then your strategy might be to maintain by eating at your maintenance intake.
Law #2: Consume sufficient protein and essential fats.
A good target for sufficient protein intake is one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
If you have never tracked your protein intake before, I highly recommend that you try it for at least one day.
Those who guesstimate how much protein they consume in a day are almost always drastically off target and way below where they should be.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats) are necessary for the body to function correctly.
Omega-3s can be consumed through fish oil supplements and whole foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and fatty fish (i.e., salmon, tuna, trout, halibut, anchovies, sardines, etc.)
Omega-6s can be found in chia seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, and some oils.
Monounsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, avocados, and various nuts and seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin, and sesame seeds), may also deliver various health benefits.
Law #3: Obtain the vitamins and minerals you need.
For all of your vitamin needs, I wrote The Ultimate User's Guide to Vitamins.
There are also a number of minerals that are essential to our health: calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, iodine, sulfur, cobalt, copper, fluoride, manganese, and selenium.
Focus on a well-rounded, whole-food diet with lots of fruit, vegetables, protein, and fibre, and you shouldn’t have to worry about deficiencies.
However, if you want to go into the weeds on micronutrients, the nutrition tracking app Cronometer is incredibly detailed.
It summarizes everything from macronutrient intake to vitamin and mineral consumption and even provides an amino acid breakdown.
If you’re worried about deficiencies in your diet, Cronometer is a great way to expose them.
Law #4: Avoid pathogens like E. coli and toxins like mercury or lead.
No one wants to get sick in the short term or develop some unheard-of cancer in twenty years because of low-dose mercury (or other toxins) poisoning.
Beyond these four laws, we don’t know much else about nutrition with certainty.
So, don’t let social media wars and poor journalism with misleading headlines lead you astray.
Stick to what is tried and true, keep an ear out for good science from trusted individuals, and pay attention to how your body feels based on how you eat.
Above all, make it sustainable.
That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading!
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Much love to you and yours,