Here is what we believe to be the four most important factors in nutrition for health. Following these will get you most of the way - It’s all about the basics!
- Prioritise Protein
- Eat Whole Foods
- Minimise Junk
- Fast Daily
Let’s look into each one of these a little deeper.
1. Prioritise Protein
Base your meals around a protein source.
When putting together each meal, start by considering the protein source.
Proteins are the building blocks of life, with our bodies constantly breaking them down and replacing them with new ones, so it is essential that we get enough! Exactly how much is individualised and dependent on a few variables; body weight, muscle mass, training volume/frequency, and of course whether you are looking to lose or gain weight, will all play a part in determining your daily requirement. Most people would benefit from more protein in their diet. To put a rough figure on it, adequate protein intake should be in the range of 1.6 - 2.2g per kg of bodyweight. For a simple example let’s say we have a 100kg male. Without consideration for the other variables mentioned above, his protein should amount to between 160g and 220g.
Animal sources are preferable
Animal sources of protein are more bioavailable than plant sources, meaning a greater percentage of the proteins are absorbed by the body. The bioavailability of proteins can be graded using a method known as DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score), with the following table showing some of the current results.
This is important for vegetarians and vegans, as they will generally need to consume around 25% more protein to compensate for the reduced absorption rates of plant proteins. In addition, they will need to get their protein from a wide range of sources to ensure they receive all of the essential amino acids (what proteins are made from), whereas animal protein sources are considered ‘whole’ as they naturally contain them all.
Helps promote satiety
The satiating effect of protein (feeling fuller for longer) is a fantastic bonus here, reducing the likelihood of overeating and potentially helping in maintaining a healthy weight.
2. Eat whole foods
Consume foods that are as close as possible to their natural state
As much as possible, try to eat and cook with foods that are still in their natural form. I know this can be difficult; it takes time and effort to cook from scratch, but one of our aims is to communicate ways to make this easier and more efficient! The key part there is ‘as much as possible’ - do what you can and what works for you, but ultimately more here is always better.
Whole foods are full of nutrients and largely free from added ingredients and nasties. Some examples include:
- Fresh meats and seafood
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Dairy products… maybe.
Dairy is a grey area, and a topic all of its own. Most dairy has undergone some form of processing, likely affecting its behaviour in the body once consumed. It is debated whether this is a concern or not, but you can’t argue that dairy isn’t a great source of nutrients, especially for children; calcium, potassium, vitamin D, along with protein, fats and carbohydrates. The bigger issue is that dairy can be problematic for a lot of people, but this varies greatly and will be dependent on the individual; our son, for example, had dairy issues as a baby (more specifically with lactose, possibly resulting from a stomach bug he picked up) which seems less of a problem now but something we are still conscious of. The best way to know for sure is to do is trial a period completely free of all dairy, and see if you notice any changes.
Opt for the highest quality you can afford
The next factor to consider is the quality of your foods - it really does matter how your food was raised/grown and what it was fed. Quality comes at a price, but I consider food shopping an investment in your health - easily the best type of investment! Grass-fed pasture-raised meat has benefits over grain-fed, and both have benefits over factory-farmed meat (which is just awful and best avoided). Likewise, Organic produce is generally better than non-organic. With that being said, this is by no means the be-all and end-all, simply buy the best you can afford and as long as you’re consuming mostly whole foods you will be miles ahead of the majority of the population!
3. Minimise Junk
Processed carbohydrates and vegetable oils
It is no revelation that junk foods are bad for you, but these two really have no place in a healthy diet and should be kept to a minimum, if not avoided entirely.
Processed or refined carbohydrates include added sugars, flours, bread, pasta, white rice etc.. all the usual suspects you have probably heard about before. The problem with these is that they have been stripped of all fibre and nutrients, so all you are left with is a very simple carbohydrate which is rapidly digested and turned into glucose (sugar) and shuttled straight into the blood. Large and frequent spikes in blood glucose can cause damage to the walls of the arteries, increasing the risk of heart complications. Additionally, the body releases insulin to clear the sugar from the blood quickly, which will leave you feeling hungry not too long after.
A quick note on whole grains:
While better for you in regards to retaining the fibre and nutrients they naturally have, in my opinion, a lot of whole grains are only marginally better than their refined versions. They still spike your blood sugar and most contain inflammatory compounds such as gluten which can be a problem for a good chunk of the population. Don’t let this put you off, they are definitely a better option, but I personally don’t eat any grains in my diet as I feel much better without them. Again, this is individualised, and the easiest way to find out for sure is to omit them for a period of time and see how you feel.
Vegetable oils are likely even more of a concern and should be avoided as much as possible. All the processing that goes into manufacturing these oils creates some really unstable products which can wreak havoc in the body, not to mention the terrible nasties which are produced when they are heated for use in cooking. There is too much to discuss here, but if you wish to learn more about this then here is an article to get started with. For further reading into the topic of fats and their history, I definitely recommend The Big Fat Surprise - Nina Teicholz. The only oils you should be consuming are extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil. I would steer clear of any others.
The real crux of the problem is when you realise just how widespread the use of these harmful vegetable oils is within the packaged food industry. They really do seem to be in everything. Most junk foods contain both refined carbohydrates and oils, such as cakes and biscuits, but if you read the ingredients of packaged foods you will see they crop up in a vast array of products. This is another reason why it is best to eat whole foods and cook your meals from scratch, that way you will know exactly what has gone into them.
4. Fast Daily
This is one of the most simple and straightforward things you can do right now to improve your health; Stop eating all day long. First I will tell you how, then I’ll tell you why.
Consume all of your food for the day within a set time-frame
Aim for a gap of at least 12 hours between the last meal of your day, and your first meal of the following day. This is far easier than it may initially sound, and ideally you would want to increase that time to 14 - 16 hours.
Going 12 hours without food is really not that long, and some people probably do this already. If you have your dinner at 7pm, eat nothing between then and going to bed, followed by breakfast at 7am, you’ve got your 12 hours. To extend that time to 14 -16 hours, all you would need to do is delay breakfast for a few more hours and eat between 9 - 11am.
An important note before we go any further:
Fasting is not recommended nor is it necessary for children. During growth and development children need all the nutrients they can get, plus they have smaller stomachs and use up food much quicker. Fasting is also not for those who are underweight and have eating disorders such as anorexia, and also not for pregnant or breastfeeding women. The benefits of fasting which we will discuss shortly are not that relevant for children, either. That aside, most children probably get 12 hours naturally anyway!
Everyone has their own work/life schedule so the key is to find a solution that works for you. My wife and I both work fairly long days so we tend not to eat until after our little one is in bed; it is normal for it to be 8pm before we have finished eating dinner. I personally aim for a 16 hour fast, which means skipping breakfast the following day and having my first meal around midday.
I am by no means dogmatic with this; 16 hours is the aim but I often eat before I reach that. Sometimes I only make it to 14 hours, some days I don’t worry about it at all and have breakfast early! This is normally the case on weekends, I love us all to sit down and enjoy breakfast in the mornings as a family.
Eat nothing outside of your ‘eating window’
This is the crucial factor - making sure you consume no calories during your period of fasting. This includes liquid calories such as alcohol and soft drinks. Black coffee is allowed as it doesn’t contain any calories (providing you skip the sugar - which is a great way to ruin a coffee, anyway), which can be an absolute lifesaver in the mornings!
The hardest part is avoiding snacks and alcohol in the block of time between dinner and bed. So long as you have had a nutrient-dense, satiating meal consisting of whole foods and a decent protein source, you should be fine!
The benefits of not eating all the time
There are several benefits associated with fasting which include:
- Reduced hunger due to the regulation of insulin
- Enhancing weight loss
- Reducing inflammation in the body
But possibly the most intriguing benefit is the body’s ability to initiate a form of housekeeping, a cellular clean-up process known as autophagy.
Go without food for a period of time and our bodies will start to clear out old, damaged proteins and other unwanted material which could potentially lead to health problems in the future. In my opinion, this alone is worth the short term abstinence from food! The effects of autophagy appear to increase the longer you fast, with the sweet-spot around the 16-hour mark, so more incentive to aim for that!
- Prioritise protein at every meal. Ensure protein sources are good quality, and if you are vegetarian to be aware you may need more due to the poor absorption of plant proteins.
- Consume the vast majority of your food intake from whole, natural sources. Meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, possibly dairy if you tolerate it. Again, the higher the quality, the better.
- Remove or severely reduce the junk from your diet. Most notably added sugars and vegetable oils, but anything processed should really be kept to a minimum.
- Stop eating all day long. Aim to give yourself a 12 - 16 hour window of completely no food between dinner and breakfast. This is far more achievable than it sounds, and can have profound effects.
With all this being said, it is important to recognise that we are human beings and life is for living. Social situations can make it difficult to adhere to these principles all the time, and that is absolutely fine. Aim to follow them 90% of the time and you’ll do great! - I would be lying if I said I never ate cake, biscuits or pizza!