A Detailed Beginners Guide to Nutrition and Staying on Track

As of 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed that worldwide, 39% of people 18 years and older were overweight, and 13% were obese [1]. Despite our technological age and instant access to knowledge, there is still much confusion on proper nutrition.

While nutrition is a large piece of the health puzzle, there are more fad diets than ever, leading to misinformation, confusion, and decision-paralysis.

In this article, we’ll explore what causes overweight and obesity, what healthy eating looks like, how to start, and how to pick ourselves back up when we, inevitably, fall off the wagon.

Understanding What Causes Overweight and Obesity

There are rare health conditions that can lead to overweight and obesity. Genetics also plays a small part. But for the majority of us, there are a few primary contributing factors that we can influence.

Eating More Calories Than We Need

pushing away sweets

Why Are We Addicted to Food?

Back when food was scarce and harder to obtain, people would eat as a means to survive–loading up on the calories, as we didn’t know when the next meal would be. We ate this way for millions of years, and our bodies adapted to optimize this living condition.

Now, we’ve solved the problem of food supply (at least for most of the planet). With our handheld supercomputer phone, we order groceries from an app, and impatiently wait a couple of hours for it to arrive.

The problem is, our bodies and brain aren’t ready to handle the amount of food available to us. Our body’s survival tools, such as dopamine production from food, are now used against us. Food is fattier, saltier, and sugarier(?) than ever before, leading to more addicting foods.

There are even studies that suggest sugar is more addicting than cocaine [2]. No wonder why it’s so hard to quit.

But while many have amazing access to all sorts of food, there are still many who do not.

Why Access To Healthy Food Matters

farmers market stall

“Low-income and racial/ethnic minority populations have substantial environmental challenges to overcome to make healthy dietary choices and to maintain a healthy body weight.”

PubMed

While the evidence for eating fresh, organic foods is out there, much of it is still disputed. Because of the ongoing debate, it’s often not discussed unless you are actively looking for it.

Unfortunately, uninformed populations suffer the most from preventable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, much of which can be reduced or eliminated from proper nutrition.

Fortunately, there is much work being done to reverse this. “Nutrition education, including learning to understand food and menu labels, could help residents of low-income communities to make healthier choices.” [3].

Teaching nutrition to those in need, and providing access to healthier options, such as farmers markets, could positively influence the health conditions many have today.

What Lack of Physical Activity Does to Us

a woman sitting on a couch with a dog

While the majority of this article is on nutrition, it would be unfair not to include physical activity (not to be confused with exercise). We often think of nutrition and activity as separate entities, but often the sum is greater than the parts.

For instance, not only does physical activity help your overall health, but it can also help and even reverse many diseases, including diabetes [3].

Physical activity is widely defined as,

“any bodily movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscle that increases energy expenditure above a basal level.”

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans

The New York Department of Health states when it comes to physical inactivity and heart disease, physical inactivity “ranks similarly to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol” [4].

Unfortunately, only about 22% of Americans meet the physical activity recommendations [5], which is a big part of why heart disease is so prevalent today. In America, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women and is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths [6].

Since many have a negative view or experience with exercise (understandably), it might help to differentiate exercise and physical activity.

What’s the Difference Between Physical Activity and Exercise?

Walking

Physical activity is usually unplanned and not a repeated function. For example, choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator counts toward your daily physical activity.

On the other hand, running a mile on the treadmill would be defined as exercise.

Getting creative and finding ways to add more physical activity into your day adds up over time, and can easily influence your overall health.

How Much Physical Activity Should I Get?

checking a sports watch

A moderate goal for weekly physical activity is at least 150 minutes per week, as recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The 150 minutes per week can be split up in pretty much any way possible. A 30-minute walk, five days a week. A 10-minute walk, three times a day, for five days a week. Or even 150 minutes all at once (although it might be more conducive to have it spread out to better form a habit).

Other Factors Contributing to Overweight and Obesity

There is a myriad of factors still left to consider. If you find yourself struggling with your health, as I sometimes still do, then these should not go unchecked.

  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Commuting time
  • Sedentary behavior
  • Depression

Step 1: Define What Healthy Eating Looks Like To YOU

question mark image

Everyone has different views and needs when it comes to food, so it makes sense that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. When most people find a particular diet that works for them, it’s easy to become evangelical and want to share the benefits with others. 

It’s a tough instinct to ignore, believe me. But we all have different tastes, wants, and microbiomes in our gut, so it’s possible that others won’t take to it as well as you.

And like diets, everyone has a different relationship with food. Some might be okay giving up certain foods. Others might not want to ever separate from french fries. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t define what “healthy” means to you.

Assessing Your Values

a man thinking look at a board with the word "value" on it

A truly healthy diet is one that should align with your values and your wants while supporting your body’s needs of course. If french fries and aioli are one of your values, then, by all means, make some room for them. Because if your values and good food are conflicting, then one of them isn’t going to last very long.

A good rule is to make a list of your top 3 life values, and see how food fits into the bigger picture.

For example, if one of your values is traveling, you might have a harder time finding healthier foods. So, you might need to be more flexible while you’re out and about and be creative to find nutritious options.

Or, if one of your values is saving money to buy a house, then planning your meals and cooking in bulk can help.

Define what your life values are and make food work for you, instead of having you work for the food.

Step 2: Understanding the Basics of Nutrition

a spoon with "a, b, c" letters in it

While understanding nutrition is important, your approach comes first. The nutritional suggestions in the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines include:

• Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan. Eating patterns are the combination of foods and drinks that a person eats over time.

• Focus on variety, nutrient-dense foods, and amount.

• Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake.

• Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.

hhs.gov

Food Groups and Where to Find Them

all types of food on a table
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Protein
  • Fats

I once heard a good rule when it came to navigating grocery stores, “Follow the perimeter of the store, and you will find the produce, dairy, and meats. The manufactured items are usually placed in the middle of the store.”

Most of us know the maze of grocery stores all too well. Identifying which food groups you need, and knowing where to find them is an underrated skill.

What Should I Eat in General?

a girl pushing away donuts and eating a salad

As for the official eating pattern recommendations, The Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 suggest:

• A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other

• Fruits, especially whole fruits

• Grains, at least half of which are whole grains

• Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages

• A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products

• Oils

Executive Summary, Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020

For more information, including the types of foods and serving sizes based on calorie levels, see USDA Healthy U.S. Style Eating Pattern.

What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients consist of three macro, or “large”, nutrients that our foods contain. They are carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

According to The American Council of Exercise, the daily total calorie guidelines for macros are as follows:

  • 45 to 65% Carbohydrates
  • 10 to 35% Protein
  • 20 to 35% Fat

What Is the Recommended Amount of Protein?

a sign that says, "protein", and protein foods laid out around it

While different diets have varying amounts of fruit, veggies, dairy, and grains, protein is never excluded as it’s vital to our body. Its specialized role is to build, maintain, and repair muscle. Too little and you’d lose muscle mass and function. Too much and you’d take in excess calories.

The recommended protein intake for those who are inactive is 0.8g per kg of body weight [6]. For example, my bodyweight of 150lbs (68 kg) means I require a minimum of 54g of protein daily. However, since I’m an active person, it increases to 1.4 to 1.7g per kg daily (95g to 116g).

What Are the Recommended Amounts of Carbohydrates and Fats?

high fat foods on a table such as nuts, cheese, avocados, and eggs

It’s also important to know the ratios of macronutrients you’d like. As carbs are often the most addicting macro, they can get out of hand. Coming up with techniques such as food tracking apps, and limiting carbohydrate-rich foods at home can keep the cravings at bay while sticking to the 45 to 65% of daily total calories from carbs. Additionally, keeping fat consumption to the recommended 20 to 35% can help with satiety (feeling full) and reduced cravings.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommend consuming less than 10% of daily total calories from saturated fats and less than 1% of trans fats [7]. Outside of those two fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good replacements, as long as the recommended limits for total calories from fat are still met.

For more information, refer to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Step 3: How to Start a Nutrition Overhaul

a starting line on a track field

While it’s helpful to know which foods (and their quantities) are best for you, it’s another challenge to put it into practice.

The reason why healthy habits are hard to stick to isn’t about willpower, as most suggest, but proper planning.

Here Are 3 Steps to Take What You’ve Learned and Put It into Motion

1. Create an Action Plan

a notebook with "action plan" written in it

Once you identify your values, and what you want to work on, now is the time to create an action plan. This will be the piece that helps keep you on track, a “true north” for your health. A great way to get marry your values with an action plan is to create SMART goals.

2. Taking Action and Developing an Accountability System

Feeling stuck or uninspired? Check out this talk on taking action by Tony Robbins

When you take action, keeping yourself accountable can be the most challenging part. You’ll have to be creative and come up with tricks or “hacks” to limit distractions and cravings.

For example, many find that performing pantry purges and keeping food on the “naughty list” out of the house works well. For others, especially those who live with roommates or family, this can be more challenging.

While you and your health coach (if you have one), are responsible for upholding a health plan, it’s up to you to stay accountable for your health day-to-day.

3. Overcome Inevitable Lapses

a flow of steps from try, fail, try again, fail better, back to try again, and then to succeed

One of the biggest things I’ve learned studying for my health coach certification is that everyone has lapses in their habits. While there might be some exceptions, a lapse at some point is pretty much inevitable.

But, there are ways to reduce the downtime and the time it takes to get back on the wagon.

The best way to prepare for lapses with your health goals is to remind yourself of why you are doing them in the first place. This goes back to values.

Remind Yourself of Your Values

For example, if someone’s goal is to lose weight and stop taking blood pressure medication, but he is tempted by desserts, what options might he have? He can eat the dessert, sure. But he can also ask himself if eating the sugary dessert is more important than his desire to lose weight and get off blood pressure medication.

It may be tough, but by framing decisions this way, it becomes simpler to decide what is best. And not feeling like something is being sacrificed or FOMO.

By preparing for lapses, you are helping your future self navigate challenges and make healthy habits that much easier.


Knowing your values and your relationship with food can take time and energy. But, understanding what you want out of the food you eat can set you in a positive direction and make those tasties work for you. Reducing confusion and following general nutrition guidelines are a great place to start building your knowledge. And with knowledge comes the confidence to make the nutritional choices that matter to you. Add in a sprinkle of techniques to help you stay on track, and you have a recipe to master your internal health in no time.

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