10 Rules for a Healthy Diet

Coming into the holidays it can be hard to maintain a healthy diet and a good exercise routine. Family events, work events, travel, and general schedule disruptions mean that your normal routine can fly right out the window, making it hard to get back on track once the festivities are done. Today we’re going to cover ten tips for maintaining a healthy diet that will help carry you through the biggest eating days of the year!

Disclaimer: I am passionate about nutrition, because it has been the main thing that helped me go from clinically obese to being in the best shape of my life. I make constant choices and refinements to maintain and improve myself in the safest way possible. The tips below are ones that I use on a regular basis that provide me results while maintaining feelings of wellness and good overall health. But I am not a medical doctor. Your mileage may vary, and you should talk to your doctor if you have doubts about any of this advice. You are responsible for your own health and well-being.

Let’s get started!

The 90/10 Split

Very few people can manage to eat 100% healthy, 100% of the time. It’s hard to forgo all the great food we have available in favor of constantly maintaining that Perfect Food Intake we’re all told we need in order to live a healthy lifestyle. The truth is your body is a pretty awesome machine, and it doesn’t need you to be at 100% all the time. Go for the 90/10 split: eat healthy 90% of the time, and forgive yourself the other 10%.

But how do you manage that? Most of us eat on a regular schedule of 2-4 meals per day (though obviously your schedule may vary) and the average is about 3 meals per day. If we string this out over time we get an average of 21 meals per week, and 48 meals per month (4 weeks).  If we apply the 90/10 rule to our number of meals per week we see that in any given week you should be expecting to eat 19 healthy meals and 2 “cheat” meals. This expands out to 8 cheat meals and 40 healthy meals every month.

A “cheat” meal is one in which you eat with looser guidelines than usual. Maybe you’re strict Paleo most of the time, but you have a cheat meal of pizza once per week to indulge that itch. Whether your cheat meal is intentionally planned OR required by circumstance (i.e. you’re traveling and have to eat fast food), it still counts as a cheat meal.

Also notice that I didn’t say cheat DAY. A cheat meal is a single sitting, lasting no more than 45-60 minutes, in which you suspend your diet and eat as your cravings take you. Do not expand this theory to have an entire cheat day. It’ll make it even harder to get back on track the next day, and make you more likely to continue the cheating day over day. Limit yourself to a single meal, and then firmly tell yourself your normal diet is back in place immediately thereafter. Your goal is no more than ONE cheat meal per week.

Drink Plenty of Water

This one is simple: water is good. We’re essentially water- and Carbon-based life forms: Carbon creates the structure and water keeps it all moving along. You should aim to drink about 1 gallon of water per day, but not more than 2 gallons. It may be hard to believe but “water poisoning” is a thing (it’s actually hyponatremia, or a dearth of sodium in the body, which is the opposite of dehydration). Cap your intake just below 2 gallons and you’ll be okay.

Learn What Hunger Feels Like, and Don’t Eat When You’re Not Hungry

Your body has a lot of signals it sends out, and one of the most misunderstood is hunger. Most people have learned to confuse true hunger from fake hunger.

True Hunger is when your body craves nourishment, and is brought on my being low on calories. This craving manifests often as an “empty stomach” feeling and sometimes as lethargy which goes away when you eat. You may also recognize this as being “Hangry”, or “angry from being too damned hungry!”

This should not be confused with the lethargy experienced by diabetics, and sometimes pre-diabetics, as a result of low blood sugar. If you have not been diagnosed with diabetes, then you probably have developed a constant need for sugar that your body rebels against, causing you to feel flu-like symptoms. Diabetics know what they experience when their blood sugar is low, and should behave per the directions of their doctor.

Fake Hunger is when you feel like you should eat, most often based on time of day, boredom, or others eating (social pressure). The hunger has no physiological basis and often leads to over-eating.

The best method I have found for learning the difference is to do a 24 hour fast. It’s pretty simple, and by the end you will be experiencing True Hunger, and able to identify the feeling in the future. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Pick a fasting day, preferably one where you won’t be exercising heavily (you’re going to be a little tired)
  2. The night before the Fast, finish your last meal around 8:00PM and drink two large glasses of water before bed.
  3. Go to sleep
  4. During your fasting day, the rules are simple:
    • Don’t eat or drink any calories. Zero. None. At all.
    • You may have non-calorie drinks (water, coffee, tea) without any additives (including sweeteners).
  5. Fast for the entire day, and at 8:00 PM have a moderately sized meal
    • Limit this meal to no more than 400-500 calories
    • Do Not try to make up for not eating!

BAM! The feeling you got later in the day was True Hunger, and now you know what it feels like. When you eat, do so slowly and let your body react to the food. Once you no longer feel hungry, even if there is food left-over, STOP EATING.

Try Not to Drink Your Calories

Another simple one: avoid drinking your calories!

Your diet should mainly consist of solid foods, since that’s what your digestive track tends to like best. High calorie drinks like smoothies and shakes may be useful as an occasional meal replacement, but most experts agree that solid food is the way to go.

Avoid high-sugar drinks like sodas and juices completely. Just don’t drink them. You don’t need them.

When it comes to Milk, you need to make smart choices, because milk can add a lot of calories to your diet very quickly if you’re not careful. I recommend the low/no fat milk options if you’re going to drink it. Here’s a quick comparison of 1 cup of the main milk options:

  • Whole Milk:     148 cal  |  8 g Fat (4.6 saturated)  |  12 g Carbohydrate (all Net)  |  8 g Protein
  • 2% Milk:     124 cal  |  4.9 g Fat (3.1 saturated)  |  12 g Carbohydrate (all Net)  |  8 g Protein
  • 1% Milk:     103 cal  |  2.4 g Fat (1.5 saturated)  |  12 g Carbohydrate (all Net)  |  8 g Protein
  • Non-Fat Milk:     83 cal  |  0.2 g Fat (0.1 saturated)  |  12 g Carbohydrate (all Net)  |  8 g Protein

With milk choices the major difference is the Fat content, and since much of that is saturated, it behooves you to choose the lower fat version here, and then get your unsaturated (good) fats from another source. The protein is good, but the carbs (lactose) are a bit high for a drink.

Non-calorie drinks like water, coffee, tea, etc. are all fair game. Be mindful of caffeine content, though!

Eat Whole Foods

I don’t mean shop only at the store by the same name, but rather make food choices that include whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. This means avoiding some of the staples of many people’s diets including grains, box meals, and legumes (e.g. beans, peas, peanuts, lentils, and soybeans). The idea is to only eat stuff that can be digested right out of nature with nothing more than heating it up.

Meats are all fine, but be careful to eat mostly lean meats like poultry, lean beef, and lean pork. The animal fat content is fine in moderation, but you mostly want the protein from these sources.

Seafood is a subset of the Meat group, and should be limited to a 1-2 times per week for most fish and shellfish due to higher mercury content. Too much seafood can lead to mercury poisoning which is unpleasant, to say the least!

Vegetables are good. Go to town. It’s almost impossible to overeat vegetables at all, and it IS impossible from a caloric perspective. For example, a 6 inch diameter head of iceberg lettuce has 75 calories, and an 8.5 inch long carrot only has 30 calories. These foods will take up a lot of room in your stomach, easing feelings of hunger very quickly and well before you get more calories than you can handle.

Fruits are good in moderation, and their strength comes from the same place as their weakness: carbohydrates in the form of sugar. The natural sugars found in fruits are the best for your body because it’s what we evolved eating. Apples, oranges, and bananas? All good. But it can be very easy to overeat your calories if fruit forms the main part of your diet. First, fruits digest quickly, stopping hunger for less time than other foods, and second, fruits have the highest sugar calorie content of any naturally occurring food. For example, a 7-inch banana has 100 calories and a 3-inch diameter orange has 87 calories. This may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that these are almost double the calories of the lettuce and carrots, above, and will digest much more quickly. The veggies will sit in your stomach for an hour or more, slowly feeding into your system, but the fruits will break down fast and shunt their sugars into the blood stream within 10-20 minutes. To keep satiated for about an hour, you would need to eat about 100 calories of veggies OR about 350 calories of fruits. See the difference?

Lastly, grains are not whole foods. All grains must be harvested, processed, and prepared in various ways in order to make them digestible for the human body. You cannot pick a stalk of wheat, eat it, and get nutrition sufficient to live from it. On the good side, grains have allowed society to flourish because we have an easily produced source of calories that can keep entire populations alive for long stretches of time. It is easy to store, lasts a long time, and has a lot of calories for a small amount of food. BUT that’s also the problem! Grains are foods that have the same problem as fruits, but to an even more extreme extent: they are very calorie-dense and digest very quickly. For instance, 1 cup of white short-grain rice (very common) has about 240 calories and we all know about the “Chinese food” effect where you are hungry shortly after eating. This actually happens with most grain-heavy meals: you eat a lot of calories but the digestion thereof takes so short a time that you are hungry for more food even though you don’t need more calories! Living on rice, you would probably need about 1 cup every 1-1.5 hours to stop from being hungry. If we assume that you are awake for 16 hours per day, the hours just after waking and just before sleep are non-eating (i.e. you don’t worry about being hungry), then you have 13-14 “eating hours” per day. On the low end, living on one cup of rice every 1.5 hours would still net you over 2,000 calories per day! See the problem?

Eat whole foods like lean meats, healthy unsaturated fats (from animal/oil sources), as many veggies as you want, a couple pieces of fruit per day, and cut the grains.

Your Body Needs Protein

Proteins form the building blocks for many of the tissues in your body, and are used to keep things running smoothly. The body uses protein to:

  • Build and repair body structures like muscle, hair, and skin.
  • Form connective tissue between other structures.
  • Create antibodies to ward off disease.
  • Help with immune system recognition of Healthy vs. Unhealthy structures
  • Break down amino acids for use in hormones and enzymes necessary for life

Your main source for protein is going to be animal products, because they are what we’ve evolved to eat. These include lean meats, red meats, and seafood. Vegetarian sources include legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, but the proteins in these tend to be incomplete, lacking in one of more essential acids. Legumes are the best choice out of the bunch to ensure you have a complete protein source, but they are not technically whole foods. If you need them, try to limit your non-meat proteins to kidney beans (boiled), almonds, cashews, walnuts, and most seeds.

For best effect you should eat to maintain your muscle mass, while minimizing fat. My recommendation (and that of many other fitness experts) is to aim for between 1 gram and 1.2 grams of dietary protein per pound of bodyweight per day. For example, a 170 lbs man (i.e. me!) would shoot for 170-204 grams of protein per day (600-800 calories). If you are less active, then aim for the lower end of the spectrum. If you are more active, go higher.

A significant portion of your calories per day (50-60%) should be coming from protein sources, with the remainder made up of fats (25-40%) and carbohydrates (10-15%).

Note: These percentages are significantly different from those published by some government-sponsored institutions like the USDA over the years. The numbers above are based on current research, anecdotes, and my personal experiences with diets that are not centered around grains and other carbohydrates. A great many researchers and nutrition experts have come out in support of the “more protein, less carbs” eating methods, because we are seeing more and more that it works and is healthy! 🙂

Your Body Needs Healthy Dietary Fats

Just like your body needs Protein, you also need healthy dietary fats. There are four types of fat you should know about, with two being good, one being bad, and one being the precursor to the Apocalypse.

  • Unsaturated Fats (mono- and poly-): these are the good fats that help maintain your cholesterol levels (low LDL and high HDL) and provide “clean” fat energy. These fats are formed in such a way that they don’t lead to the artery build-up that fats are commonly accused of. They do not significantly increase risk of coronary heart disease, because of this structural characteristic.
  • Saturated Fats: Appear in small amounts in some animal products like red meat, but are most often an additive to foods where the room temperature form is important. For instance, margarine might be high in saturated fat because it needs to be solid when it’s left out of the fridge. Over-eating saturated fats has been correlated to increased risk of coronary diseases and several cancers (breast, ovarian, colorectal, and prostate). The recommendation is to eat as little of this as possible.
  • Trans-unsaturated Fats: These fats are primarily lab-created as the result of partially hydrogenating the good unsaturated fats. producing saturated fats and trans- fats. Trans- fats have all the bad characteristics of fats, with none of the benefits: they aren’t used for structure or function by the body, but they stack really well in the arteries to cause clogs. They’ve even been shown to cause HDL to drop and LDL to rise, which is the exact opposite of what you want them to do!

The recommendation is to eat as much of your fats as possible from unsaturated sources, severely limit saturated fats, and avoid anything that has “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. A significant portion of your calories per day (50-60%) should be coming from protein sources, with the remainder made up of fats (25-40%) and carbohydrates (10-15%).

Carbs Are Fine When You Can Best Use Them

Above we said that carb’s should make up about 10-15% of your dietary calories. If you eat the standard 2,000 calorie diet (though most people don’t need that many) then this works out to 200-300 calories from carbohydrates per day. At 4 calories per gram, that’s 50-75 grams per day. To put that into perspective, a single slice of multigrain bread has about 18 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of which are fiber, for a net 15 grams of dietary carbs. In a day, you would be able to eat 3-5 slices of bread to meet your allotted max. Doesn’t seem like a lot, does it?

While it is true that your body uses carbohydrates for energy production, what isn’t true is that you need them to produce energy. The dietary calorie is a unit of measurement which indicates the amount of energy present in one gram of a dietary nutrient. Carbohydrates and Proteins both contain ~4 calories per gram, while Dietary Fats contain ~9 calories per gram. The difference between the sources is that carbohydrates are fast digesting, whereas the others are slower. With a bit of effort, you can train your body to stop expecting the constant influx of fast energy, and instead use the slower sources as well as stored body fat.

Other than the calorie content, there really is no reason you need to to eat carbohydrates. The only exception to this is Fiber, which you do need in your diet.

Fiber is a non-digesting carb that your body uses to keep the plumbing regulated. When looking at the food label (you are reading those, right?) you can subtract out the Fiber from the overall carbohydrate content to find the Net Carbs. Look for foods where Fiber is high and Net Carbs is low for the best options. Some good examples are cauliflower (2.1 grams Fiber & 2 grams other carbs per cup) and turnip greens (5 grams Fiber & 1 gram other carbs per cup). Women need ~25 grams of Fiber per day, while men need ~38 grams per day.

If you want to give your body a little boost during exercise recovery, you can eat carbs right after a workout, along with a good dose of protein (20-40 grams). to help with muscle rebuilding and recovery. But this is not required and your body will recover fine with a good diet and rest after each workout.

Pay Attention to Calories In Versus Calories Out

Good food choices form the building block of your diet, but you also need to be mindful of how much nutrition you’re taking in. Even the best food choices can backfire if you’re eating way more than you need in a day. You can track this by using the tried and true “Calories In, Calories Out” method. Yes, it’s also known as Calorie Counting!

First, you need to know how many calories your body needs to live. You can estimate this a couple ways, but here are my favorites:

The Harris-Benedict Formula

Men  –  Calories per day = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women  –  Calories per day = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)

The Lean Mass Method

Lean Mass = Bodyweight – (Bodyweight x Body Fat %)

Men  –  Calories per day = Lean Body Mass x 13

Women  –  Calories per day = Lean Body Mass x 11.5

Second, you need to adjust for your level of activity. I have seen many ways to do this, and based on my own experience they seem to be pretty high. Here are the adjustments I use, day to day, based on activity level:

Sedentary (desk job all day, nothing extra): Calories x 1.10

Moderate (45-60 min cardio) – Calories x 1.25

Intense (60+ min cross-training) – Calories x 1.4

Now, just track your calories in from food against your estimated calories out from living and activity level. Make them equal to maintain, put out more to lose weight, and take in more to gain weight.