5 Tips for Practicing Practical Nutrition
A few months ago, I was asked to speak at a Women’s Conference in Philadelphia about nutrition. I am faaaar from an expert on the area but it is something I’m super passionate about — not just nutrition but the idea of practical nutrition specifically.
We are overwhelmed with so much information on food and so much of it contradicts each other. Have you ever searched “Healthy Dinners” on Pinterest? It’s a lot to wade through. There have been times in my life when food has caused me so much guilt and stress but I feel like in the last few years, I’ve been able to develop a peaceful relationship with food and to enjoy healthful food in a way that still allows me to live my life.
I think the only way to build strong nutrition habits is to create an intuitive relationship with your body. In order to do that, I follow the below five principles to figure out what works and what does not work for me. Creating a relationship with our bodies leads us naturally to make choices that better serve it. I’d love to hear about what works for you in the comments!
I think we’ve all heard we should be going heavy on the protein and veggies but truly…there’s only so many times you can eat chicken with a side of broccoli before the smell makes you want to puke.
But protein is amazing. It helps boost our metabolism, stabilizes blood sugar, and has a thermic effect on our body which means the digestion of protein raises our body temperature which helps it burn more calories. Up to 30% of the calories in protein you eat are burned off just through the digestion process.
Protein is literally the building block of our bodies — our cells, muscles, hair, and nails are all built from amino acids and chains of amino acids make up protein. There are 20 amino acids that — 11 of those our body is able to make on it’s own but in order to get the other 9, we are totally dependent upon what we ingest. A complete protein contains all 9 amino acids and is the kind of protein where we derive the most benefit. We should be eating 3 servings of complete protein per day and if you’re working out, one of those servings should be within thirty minutes of your workout. All animal proteins are naturally complete along with quinoa, eggs, and tofu. Other sources of protein like nuts, grains, and legumes are incomplete on their own but can be complete when paired — like legumes + grains and legumes + nuts.
I’ve found that the only way I can consistently eat a high quantity of protein and vegetables is by creatively incorporating them into my diet rather than just eating meat and a side of veggies. For example, I love eating this super spinach smoothie in the morning:
Chocolate Strawberry Spinach Smoothie:
1 large handful spinach
1/2 frozen banana
3 - 4 strawberries
1 scoop chocolate protein powder (I love this one! It’s plant-based and so yummy and is a complete protein)
1 spoonful cocoa powder
1 spoonful chia seeds
1 spoonful creamy natural peanut butter
1/4 c. almond milk
1/2 c. water
Mix and enjoy!
To keep your metabolism going all day long, you have to eat all day long! When I began eating more frequently throughout the day, it finally clicked for me that there was no exhalation in starvation and that the purpose of eating was to fuel and nourish your body.
If your body is constantly engaging to digest food, your metabolism will be constantly burning. I try to eat every three hours and never go more than five hours between meals/snacks. I try and avoid carbs and sugars (even natural ones) after lunch. They provide lots of energy so I like to eat them earlier in the day when my body will have more time to use it.
Eating more frequent, small meals also helps to naturally regulate portion size. It takes 20 minutes of eating for our stomach to send the signal to our brain that we’re full. If I haven’t eaten enough during the day, I’ll go into my next meal STARVING and likely end up eating way more in those first 20 minutes than I otherwise might.
Eating five times a day sounds intimidating but those extra snacks don’t need to be complicated to serve their purpose. In the mornings, I love to snack on fruit, protein muffins/balls, Lara bars or egg muffins. In the afternoons, I love nuts, green juices, chia seed puddings, or beans. The key is to plan it out for the whole week so you know exactly what you need to have on hand. It’s also important to have simple back-ups because even the best plans don’t always work out — I keep a bag of cashews and a box of Lara bars in the pantry at all times.
I’m also a lot happier if I plan food that’s healthy AND that I’m excited about. I try and have my lunches pass what I like to call the Chipotle Test — basically when 11:30am rolls around and my coworkers decide that they’re going to Chipotle, if I’m not excited about the lunch I’ve packed I’m 100% going to ditch it and go with them. If you’re going to stick the plan, you need to be excited about what you planned.
During the class, we did an exercise where we blindly compared nutritional labels between one “healthy” food and one “not-so-healthy” food in the same category and tried to guess which label belonged to which food. Let me tell you, it was a lot harder than you think to guess which was which.
I’m not a big fan of buying processed or packaged food. I prefer eating whole foods and trying to make as much as possible myself. I remember watching a nutritionist on The Oprah Show with my mom soooooo many years ago. He said that everything you eat should either come from the earth or have a mother. I truly think about that every time I go to the grocery store.
If you are going to buy processed food, it’s so important that you read the label. I believe that when you know better, you do better (s/o Maya Angelou) and the more you know about the food you eat, the better you are able to make decisions that serve your body and your goals.
When we did exercise in class it became clear that in each case, the food that was marketed as healthy was not nutritionally different from the “unhealthy” option. I’m not saying you should never buy processed food again, but I am saying that your opinion and perception about the food you’re eating should be based on first hand knowledge you gain from labels and not from whatever the Marketing team at Nabisco wants you to believe.
Anthony and I have this joke where one of us will start saying something and trail off like we’re waiting for the other person to finish the sentence and then we’ll both just say “hooooomemade” at the same time. We have had many passionate conversations over the years that start with '“How cool would it be to make homemade _________?” Over many instances of trial and error, we have come to find out that there’s some things that are so worth it to make yourself and there are other things that are sooooooo not.
We love making pasta sauce, pasta, salsa, hummus, nut milk, salad dressing, and pizza. All of these are relatively easy to make yourself. When you buy these things in store, they usually contain unnecessary sugar and additives. By making it yourself, you have total knowledge and control of what you’re eating.
There are also things that are definitely not worth it to make yourself. A few months ago we decided it would be amazing to make homemade cheese for our homemade pizza. We spent hours pulling and stretching hot cheese curds only to end up with a product that was waaaaaay worse than what we can buy at the Italian market down the block.
We also decided once that we were going to make our own pho — a Vietnamese noodle soup that has the most amazing flavorful broth. Fast forward to us standing in the frozen aisle of H-Mart buying bags of straight-up bones that we boiled for 12 hours. At the end of the day, we again ended up with something not as good as what we could buy relatively easily and inexpensively.
Generally, we try to avoid homemaking things we don’t really understand and that we can easily buy a relatively healthy version of elsewhere. However, things that are relatively easy to make and whose store-bought counterparts are generally not clean, we prefer to make ourselves.
In order to truly change your relationship with food, you have to build a lifestyle and not a diet. Diets are by nature temporary because they almost always have an end goal in mind. When you’re on a diet, you have to make the choice every time you eat — are you going to keep your diet or are you going to cheat? A lifestyle, on the other hand, is just that — it’s your life. I don’t believe in the phrase “cheat meal” because it gives the connotation that you’re doing something you shouldn’t. You can’t cheat on a lifestyle. A lifestyle allows room for ice cream in the summer and going out to eat with your friends. I truly believe that in order to make any lasting nutrition changes, you must allow room for life.
One thing I will say is that if I’m going to eat something I’d consider a treat, I make sure I always eat my favorite version of my favorite foods. For example, my absolute favorite doughnuts in New York City are from Doughnut Plant. They’re organic and fluffy and amazing. So when someone comes into my office with a two dozen box of Dunkin’ Donuts, I choose not to eat it because if I want a doughnut, I know exactly where to get my favorite one. Eating a Dunkin’ Donut will leave me feeling regretful and unsatisfied whereas eating my FAVORITE doughnut always makes me happy and satisfied.
To give you an idea of a lifestyle that works for us, we usually eat healthy 5 days a week, go out to dinner one night, and cook a meal once a week, usually pizza or pasta. This balance works for us and allows us to fuel our bodies while still pursuing our goal of mastering Italian cooking and also enjoying the amazing restaurants in New York City.
These five principles have changed my relationship with food. I’ve never felt more in control of my life or and I work hard to listen to what my body needs. I hope you find something helpful that you can integrate into your life. Dietary changes can feel physically and mentally impossible but I found that when you’re making changes that serve your body and you push past the initial discomfort of breaking the chain, your body will begin to work with you and practicing nutrition will begin to feel intuitive and natural. I’d love to hear your tips and thoughts in the comments!