When should I eat? How much should I eat? Is it good to be hungry? Or will I overeat if I get too hungry? Am I getting enough protein? What happens if I get too much protein? Should I fast? Or is it a sin to skip breakfast?
Confused about nutrition? Join the club! These are all legitimate questions, and depending on your lifestyle and dietary needs, the rules vary. One size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition details. The key word here, though, is DETAILS. For most of us, exact grams of protein (or any nutrient), nutrient timing, or whether we eat breakfast are not the biggest factors in weight loss or gain. So let’s skip the minutia and nail down 5 simple things that DO matter.
What does sleep have to do with nutrition you may ask. Skimping on sleep can trigger overeating and cravings for fatty foods, especially in the late afternoon or after supper. “Sleeping less than seven hours seems to be a pivotal point at which levels of the hormone ghrelin increase, causing increased feelings of hunger, and levels of the hormone leptin fall pretty quickly,” says Georgie Fear, RD, a dietitian in Vancouver and author of one of my favorite books, Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. When we’re sleep deprived we tend to seek out carbohydrate-rich foods for quick energy, and leptin levels decrease, so we don’t feel as full and the drive for food is increased. Aim for seven hours every night. Some of us need more; almost no one needs less.
Where do I start?
Pick one night this week and start with your morning alarm. Set an alert 8 hours earlier (for example, on mornings that I get up at 4:30, I’d set an alarm for 8:30 the night before). This is your reminder to start winding down. You have an hour to brush your teeth, set your morning alarm, turn your electronics off, and complete any other night time rituals. Any remaining time you have left is bonus. Read a book, take a bath, meditate, write in your gratitude journal…or just climb into bed and enjoy!
Ramp it up — Add a night (or 6).
No one (ok, very few people) ever died from drinking too much water, and most of us drink far less than we should. Staying hydrated can help you avoid overeating because a lot of people confuse thirst for hunger. If you’re craving a snack, make sure your craving is caused by hunger, not hydration. Have a glass of water first, then see if you’re still hungry 30 minutes later. While it is possible to drink too much water, few of us are in danger of that. Aim to drink about half of your body weight in ounces of water each day (for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces). Your pee is key; pale yellow urine indicates proper hydration.
Where do I start?
If you don’t drink any water right now, start with 1 glass a day first thing in the morning.
Ramp it up — Drink a glass of water before each meal.
Eat your vegetables
Simply put, you can’t eat too many vegetables (except corn, but that’s not really a vegetable, and we don’t really want to talk about what happens when you eat too much). Like water intake, most of us have a huge gap between the (colorful) vegetables we should eat and the vegetables we actually eat. Most of us have been conditioned to believe we don’t like vegetables, but we forget the wide range of options. It doesn’t have to be a salad or brussels sprouts or broccoli, although those are all delicious choices. On the flip side, a squirt of ketchup or onions on your burger isn’t a serving either. Keep it simple (and honest), and think outside of the box. Seek out vegetable recipes. It doesn’t have to be fancy or scientific. My favorite new discovery (thank you Cara and Jerry) is roasted vegetables. I buy whatever looks interesting (sweet potatoes, mushrooms, onion, pepper, broccoli, carrots, brussels sprouts are some recent choices) in as many colors as I can. Wash them, chop them, toss them in olive oil, season with Mrs Dash and/or salt and pepper, and roast at 400 for 30ish minutes. I keep the leftovers in the fridge and so I can conveniently add them to meals the rest of the week. Consider a serving about the size of your fist, aiming for 1-2 servings each meal, ideally 5-10 total servings each day.
Where do I start?
Eat a serving of vegetables (or 2) with at least one meal every day this week (7 meals total).
Ramp it up — One day this week, eat a vegetable for breakfast! Add spinach to your smoothie, eat a veggie omelet, or (gasp) start the day with a salad! Used to eating breakfast on the run? Grab a handful of carrots on your way out the door.
Because it’s generally more expensive and not as convenient as carbohydrates or fat, we often make the mistake of grabbing for protein last. Protein affects immunity, metabolism, satiety, and performance. Unlike extra fat (which we manage to store easily!), we don’t store lots of extra amino acids. If we don’t get enough protein, our body will take it from parts that we need, such as our muscles, so we have to constantly replenish protein by eating it. Protein also has some important weight loss/weight management perks:
- Protein stimulates the release of satiety hormones in the gut (the ones that tell our brain we’re full). So when you eat protein, you naturally tend to eat less, without feeling hungry.
- Protein makes your body work to digest it. Fat and carbohydrates are pretty easy for your body to process, but protein takes more energy to digest and absorb. If you eat 100 calories of protein, you’ll only use about 70 calories of it.
- Protein also helps you hang on to lean mass while you’re losing fat. When you’re in an energy deficit (eating less than you burn), your body tries to throw out everything — fat, muscle, bone, hormones, etc. — all the stuff you need. It doesn’t just get rid of fat and keep muscle…unless you eat lots of protein
Make protein a priority in your meals in order to feel fuller longer and keep that muscle mass as you drop the fat.
Where do I start?
Eat some protein with every meal. If you’re not a meat fan, add eggs, a quality protein powder, beans or legumes. Even a scoop of peanut butter is better than nothing.
Ramp it up — Aim for a palm-sized portion of lean protein at each meal.
With convenience food everywhere we look and our lives in perpetual fast forward, it’s easy to eat too much, too fast. We can alleviate this by simply eating mindfully, in other words, paying attention to whether we’re actually hungry and what (and how fast) we’re eating.
It’s ok to be hungry. Let me say that again in case you missed it. It’s ok to feel hunger. Let’s face it. We live in the middle of a “First World” country. Most of us have never felt true hunger even when we feel ravenous (and that’s a good thing). Are you eating your meals out of habit, boredom, or out of hunger? Hint: You are probably not hungry when you grab that bag of chips to accompany your evening tv show or the chocolate at 3pm. Most of us even fear hunger, which often motivates us to eat when we don’t need to. If you’ve ever travelled with me, you’ve seen hunger phobia. If modern civilization ever crumbles, I hope I’m on vacation because I am guaranteed to have enough food to feed a small army. Let’s set that hunger fear aside. Hunger is simply a bodily signal, as benign as the ones that tell you your bladder is full or you’re tired. Feeling hunger before we eat is good! It lets us know that we’re on the right track and gives us the opportunity to respond appropriately to our body’s needs.
Even if you wait until you’re hungry, if you’re in the same stage of life as me, many meals are at the kitchen counter, in the car, or if you’re lucky, at the kitchen table but not necessarily in a leisurely manner. Rushed meals lead to indigestion and overeating. It can take 15 -20 minutes for the full range of satiety signals to reach the brain, which must in turn tell you to set down that fork! If your meal is over in 5 minutes, your brain hasn’t had time to register whether or not your meal was satisfying or not.
Eating too much, too often, too fast can often be eased by eating mindfully. Check in with your body. Get acquainted (and comfortable) with that hunger signal and take the time to slow down and enjoy your food.
Where do I start?
Pick one meal this week to feel hunger, just for 5 minutes, before you eat. Try to make your meal last for at least 15 minutes, enjoying the food and paying attention to when you feel full.
Ramp it up — See if you can feel hunger for up to 30 minutes before a meal and concentrate on savoring the awaited food and enjoying the meal as long as possible.
Simple, right?! Sleep, drink water, eat protein and vegetables, and do it all mindfully ; ) Simple, yes. Easy, not necessarily. I’m still working on a few of these! While it’s tempting to try to fix everything right away, resist the urge to dive in and start small. Pick one habit from above, maybe even the one that seems easiest. Master it. Then either ramp it up, or move to another habit. The most doable, most sustainable change happens gradually.
Looking for more tips (or support) to get your nutrition on track? Stay tuned to our Facebook page or sign up for our email newsletter for upcoming details about nutrition coaching at Catalyst, including our New Year Jumpstart Team Challenge and our habit based coaching.