Monday, September 6, 2010

Beyond Wellness Foundations: Nutrition

Nutrition should be the foundation of all wellness and fitness programs, period.  Fine tuning a nutrition program that works for YOU takes patience, attention and tinkering.  There are numerous dietary refinements that may or may not work well for you based on your individual makeup and goals.  The goal of this post is to highlight the most effective strategies and offer a baseline from which to begin individual experimentation. 

Spending a period of time (or the rest of your life) avoiding certain foods may help you to identify food sensitivities and finally get rid of those stomach aches, IBS, headaches, skin problems, chronic inflammation, etc.  Many CrossFit gyms have organized 'Paleo' challenges to clean up their members' diets and find a baseline from which to reintroduce potentially harmful foods.  See CrossFit Ramstein's Paleo Challenge for a great example.

Food Quality Boring?

If things are still "off", it's time for further exploring--are you sure that soy sauce is wheat free?  Double-check your staples.  Additionally, many report reduction in joint pain when nightshades are reduced or avoided, and gastric distress may be further improved by avoiding raw nuts.  Sprouting nuts may release more key nutrients anyway.  Probiotics or fermented foods may further help to restore gut function and overcome inflammation.

Beyond evolutionary nutrition and food quality approaches, additional gains (or setbacks) may be made by focusing on portions and timing.  The Zone Diet block models may be useful for determining what quantities and proportions of foods are ideal for you.  In contrast, utilizing a dynamic nutritional approach such as variable post-workout recovery (OPT has a good grasp of this), occasional re-feeds, intermittent fasting, or a cyclical diet approach may help to fine tune the balance of body composition and performance.  Just be careful not to change too many variables at once, or to make any big transitions while under excessive stress.

The examples above are by no means all-inclusive.  There are dozens-to-hundreds of more abstract nutritional strategies that may or may not work for you.  However, the list above represents some of the areas that I have spent some time studying and working with and are approaches that I believe to be reasonable on a case-by-case basis to experiment with.

But! where do we start?

Whether you are sensitive or not, and whether you plan to continue or not, I think everyone would benefit from spending some time focusing on food quality and finding a true baseline from which to start tinkering.  So many people walk around with nagging gastro-intestinal distress, afternoon energy slumps, more bodyfat than they'd like and chronic inflammation, and they assume that is "normal".  Spending some time in the Paleo realm may really open your eyes and help you gain an understanding of what it really means to feel well.  After that you may decide that you can't live without dark chocolate, red wine, or a morning cup of coffee, and settle into a reasonable 80/20 Primal lifestyle.  Or, you may find that you feel better without grains and soy (and here), but tolerate cheese and yogurt just fine, or decide to keep in some dairy to help build size per the recommendations of John Welbourn at CrossFit Football.  Even if you go back to eating grains and dairy and red color number 5, what's the risk of a Paleo trial?  You ate extra portions of nutritious greens, high quality meats, and healthy fats for a few weeks?  Ohh darn.  The potential benefits far outweigh the inconvenience. 
Take a delicious food vacation and see how you feel

Still not ready to take the Paleo plunge?

Here's some basic ideas that will help beginners start moving towards better body composition and improved health:

  • Meals should consist of a palm-sized portion of lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, etc. The rest of the plate should be topped with veggies and fruits.  Mostly Veggies. Seriously!  Very few people get enough veggies and fruits.  Eat more. 

  • Limit starch (if you eat it at all).  Especially if trying to lose weight! No more than one serving of starch or grains per meal (including rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, corn, etc). One serving is one piece of bread, 1/2 of a bun or English muffin, 1/4 of a bagel, or 1/3 cup rice or pasta. Doesn't seem like much? That's ONE of the reasons why they're so dangerous. The servings add up fast. 

  • Healthy fats (coconut/oil, olives/oil, avocado, nuts, seeds) should be added to meals if protein sources are lean and starches are reduced. If a higher fat meat is chosen or larger portions of starch (not ideal) then skip the added fat.  Fish oil supplements or Omega 3's can benefit nearly everyone as a daily supplement regardless of meal composition.

  • No amount of added or unnatural "sugar" is good sugar. The more we can reduce it the better. Eating fruit more liberally may satisfy that sweet tooth and maintain sanity in the early stages. 

  • Plan snacks like mini-meals: small serving of protein, some fruit or veggies. Eating a granola bar, candy bar, or other high-starch or high sugar product by itself does little more than spike insulin and cause more hunger and fat deposition. A hard-boiled egg and a cup of raspberries, or a small handful of almonds or cashews is a much smarter snack.

  • Don't forget exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle elements--those will be discussed further in future posts.

Transition from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to the approach above and the body should move towards a healthy body composition, improved biomarkers such as blood lipids sugars, and better mental and physical performance.  There's no magic pill, just smart meal planning and discipline. Most people who are overweight violate one or more of those principles (too much starch and not enough vegetables or fruit is what I see most often.  That's the fault of media, cultural habit and misinformation)

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