How to Make a Nutritional Change
There are many reasons that someone would want to make a change to their nutrition and there are even more ways to go about doing it. But is one way the “best”? In this article, I will look at different ways we can approach nutritional changes in a way that will help you get the most out of that change, regardless of what specific changes you choose to make.
I’ve written on this topic extensively in the past, so you might want to check out these other articles:
Any time we are going to make a change that we hope will bring about improved health or better well-being, it makes sense to do so in an organized fashion, so we can see if it’s actually working or not. (This article is not specifically talking about any one particular change, but can apply if those changes have to do with optimizing energy, weight management, identifying digestive difficulties, or performance, among others.) When we are looking to make changes to our diet, those changes tend to fall into one of three different camps:
Tracking-based nutritional changes involve keeping a food diary of some sort (paper, spreadsheet, or digital such as My Fitness Pal). The individual “logs” their food intake, noting things such as food choice, quantity, calories, and macros (food tracking apps will log all of these for you if you input the food item and quantity). One may also make additional notations such as how they felt, when they ate, or any symptoms they experienced (e.g., fatigue, GI distress, etc).
Likely provides the greatest amount of data, especially when using a computerized program that inputs the exact food and quantity, leading to data on macro- and micronutrients.
This data is very helpful when sharing with a third party, such as a physician, nutritionist, or trainer. It provides a (slightly more) objective picture, and much richer data on the client’s/patient’s nutritional intake. This will allow for better recommendations.
It is the most inclusive, allowing the individual to stay in the "driver’s seat" as there is no elimination needed (unless required or desired). It also allows them to truly learn what works the best for their body (types of foods, ratios of protein/carbs/fats).
It is relatively easy to use, especially if using an app, after a brief introduction period. Many even have barcode scanners.
It is highly educational and often leads to a lot of “aha” moments as clients start to learn more about the foods they are eating and how they work for their bodies.
There is an initial learning curve.
Data is only as good as in the input. If a client carelessly pics random entries from a list of foods, they will likely have highly inaccurate output, making decision-making more challenging. (e.g., especially for casserole or mixed foods such as lasagna) it is largely impossible to know how accurate it is. (Tip: it is far better for something like a Greek salad to input the individual items in the salad - 2c greens, 1 oz feta cheese, 2 tbsp Greek dressing, 6 oz grilled chicken breast etc - than to randomly select “Greek salad” from the list.)
For some clients, it can cause food fixation, which is certainly not ideal.
Similarly, for some clients, it causes them to lose the connection with their internal hunger signals (e.g., “I have 600 calories ‘left’ according to My Fitness Pal, so I need to use them all up” when they are absolutely stuffed from a meal). Herein there is a disconnect between the fact that they might have been less active that day, their estimates could be underestimated, etc.
Tracking-based methods are an excellent way to gain initial food knowledge. Many of us are unaware just what is in what we eat and how much of it we eat (or don’t!). Tracking is not only effective for individuals looking to manage weight, but it is highly effective for performance-based athletes looking to make sure they are hitting certain nutritional targets (e.g., adequate carbs, protein, or specific minerals). It should not be seen as something that someone will do forever, but as a specific tool in the nutritional toolbox to help one learn about their intake and how it affects them.
Elimination-based methods of nutritional change are those that ask us to cut something specific from our diet, whether a broad category of food (e.g., carbs as in Keto diets, or cutting out alcohol as in “Dry January”), or time (as in intermittent fasting plans). For those individuals interested in weight management, the *biggest* idea behind these strategies is that they limit the amount that you eat (and therefore the calories that you consume) by manipulating some aspect of your food or the time you eat it.
Simplicity. These diets are popular because they boil down to “you just have to _____.” This is enticing because it seems simple (this is perhaps a large fallacy of such plans).
Black and white. There is not a lot of wiggle room. If your plan calls for eating between 11 and 8 but no other times, you simply eat between these times (again, there is some level of erroneous thinking here - see cons).
Relatively easy to reduce caloric intake or restrict problematic foods.
Effective for people with actual food allergies or intolerances. Of course for those who suffer from actual food allergies or intolerances, cutting out a specific food from one’s diet will likely lead to rather dramatic changes in how one feels.
Some religious and ethical practices follow this type of pattern (e.g., Jewish or Muslim food laws amongst many others, Ramadan fasting, Lenten fasting, vegetarianism amongst animal advocates, etc.).
The Fallacy. While it seems simple to say that eliminating all food between 8 pm and 11 am will inevitably result in weight loss or some other improvements one is looking to make, it should be noted that it is still possible to eat in a caloric surplus in the eating window. Similarly, cutting out all meat does not mean that one will feel their best or lose weight if the new foods they are consuming are not high quality and in appropriate portions.
The Difficulty. Strict elimination diets are very hard and that is why there is a very high dropout rate. As mentioned above, some may find that eliminating all animal products from their diet makes them feel amazing, while others may find that they feel fatigued or that their new diet creates trouble when socializing.
As far as weight is concerned, eliminating a food that is not a known allergen does not have any inherent magical weight loss properties (besides eliminating calories, if it is not replaced with something else). In fact, it can even have the opposite effect, as it may cause one to eat greater quantities of other foods or feel worse.
Elimination is sometimes necessary. For example, someone who is struggling from alcohol addiction should wholeheartedly eliminate it from their life. But should someone who “likes carbs too much” just eliminate them? That is a much harder argument and can have negative repercussions, including obsession with the eliminated food. The ability to regulate oneself around a particular food, or to assess the true impact it has (e.g., feeling gassy every time you consume dairy) and take action accordingly. Additionally, some folks find that it’s easier to get specific and eliminate a particular type of food from a particular place. For example, they may keep bulk candy or chips out of the house, but when they truly want it, they get a single size package to enjoy or go out to a restaurant.
Behavior-based strategies are those that rely on our psychology and there is some overlap with the elimination-based strategies presented above. These strategies have to do with noticing our behaviors around food and eating. We may notice that we eat more in certain environments, or when stressed, bored, or sad. We may also notice that we forget to eat on busy mornings when running the kids to school, and then find ourselves feeling drained by 11 AM or getting the dreaded afternoon crash. All of these observations can help us to be more aware and therefore make more mindful food choices, whether to perform better, feel better, or manage our weight.
This is most intuitive approach. As human animals, we are designed with specific hunger and satiety cues. We do this perfectly as babies and little children, but at some point along the way, these cues can be blurred and dampened (or exaggerated in other cases) by learned behaviors and environmental triggers. But in a perfect world, we would eat when mildly to moderately hungry, eat slowly enough to listen to feedback we receive from our bodies, and stop when we are mildly full and satisfied.
The system can break down. In a perfect world, we just eat according to our hunger and satiety cues and everything is fine, but imagine a child who has experienced food insecurity for most of their life. Do you think their hunger and satiety cues are going to work “just so” as an adult? It is logical to assume they might have difficulty recognizing either or both of these cues.
This can be quite arbitrary. Some of us just seem to be better in tune with our bodies and all the information it gives us, not to mention the body can send confusing signals (ever seen “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”?). Additionally, conditioning over time and the environment we are in is highly influential. Some foods can possibly even alter these hunger and satiety cues (e.g., low volume, highly calorically dense foods are FAR easier to overeat than super fibrous, high volume, or high protein foods). It may take time to learn about food and experiment with different types to truly tune into our inner signals.
Behavior-based strategies seem like they would be the most ideal and “natural” but some individuals struggle to “feel” these signals and they may not always “tell” them the healthiest option (mine like to tell me ice cream sometimes). ;)
Perhaps the best strategy when first learning to make dietary changes of any variety is to combine these.
For example, someone wanting to promote better performance might decide to keep a two week food diary to see what they are actually eating. They may notice that their protein intake is rather low and this could be causing issues they are experiencing with hunger and poor recovery from training. They decide to increase their protein to a certain number and continue tracking their food. After two weeks, they note where their recovery is. They also integrate in behavioral strategies by paying attention to their hunger and satiety signals before, during, and after meals. They may notice that higher protein meals seem to provider greater satiety. Additionally, they found that a dairy based protein was causing intestinal discomfort, so they found an equally tasty non-dairy option that they tolerate much better and have since eliminated other sources of dairy from their life (elimination). Eventually they stopped tracking because they found a good eating rhythm that seemed to be working well for their performance and life.
**Please note, this is simply a fabricated example and no part of it is intending to say that one should do any of these specific action steps.
This same combination of strategies can be used for any other type of nutritional change one wants to make, whether that is feeling more energized, losing weight, or correcting a nutritional imbalance.
Regardless, the best strategy is to pick *something* and set a specific period of time in which you will try this strategy (ex: 4 weeks) noting what works and what does not. This period lets you take a deep dive into a particular strategy and allows you to glean as much information as possible. Even if it was not the most effective strategy, sticking to it for a specified period of time will help you to learn just that and then make an appropriate next hypothesis and action step.
If you would like more information on how I can help you to improve your own nutrition, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I love working with my clients on making nutritional changes for all kinds of goals!
In good health,