The basics of planning out your meals for health and fitness.
Lots of people want to eat a healthier diet but are not quite sure where to start, which often results in failure to make a start. Help is here, I thought I’d give a brief outline on how I go about designing healthy eating plans to promote health and fitness for my clients. Now bear in mind that there’s lots of nuance and context when it comes to designing my clients eating plans but here are some universal basics.
Start With Protein
I believe that the foundation of a good diet should start with dietary protein. Current research in cellular health, human metabolism and maintaining a healthy body composition are supporting this view point. Proteins is made up of stings of amino-acids that are the building block for all our cells, including muscle,inadequate levels of protein will compromise our cellular health. Dietary protein is very satiating, it makes us feel fuller and less likely to need snacks that cause fat gain, and very unlikely to be used as energy to make body fat. Finally, as protein combined with resistance training build muscle which can boost your metabolism, as it gives you a larger fat urning capacity and draws more glucose out of the blood. Check out our protein article for more in-depth information (protein article).
How Much Protein?
Your daily protein intake target should be dictated by your activity levels, research strongly suggest you should consume about 1.6-grams – 2.3-grams per kg of body weight (ref). A 70kg person that’s bewteen 112-grams- 160-grams of protein a day, higher on the scale the more you exercise. If a small lean portion of meat or fish weighs 160-grams it should contain approximately 40-grams of protein, the general rule of thumb is dividing a portion of meat or fish by 4 gives you the protein content. 3 servings of 160-grams of meat or fish, over the course of a day, will provide a 120-grams of protein, See our protein article for different sources of proteins and the amount they contain (protein article).
In short aim for a total daily intake number not a percentage when it comes to how much protein you eat in a day as its so critical to cellular health.
Next Vegetables & Plants
Every meal should contain a significant portion of vegetables as they are vital for health. Vegetables contain fibre, which not only have a very limited effect on raising blood sugar levels they also bind with carbs in a meal to slow down the release of glucose in the blood, and stable blood sugar levels are a key indicator of health. In addition to the fibre content of vegetables they also contain phytonutrients which have many beneficial effects on the body like lowering blood pressure and reducing inflammation. Finally they plants and vegetables have been shown to have a significant role in improving benificial gut bacteria.
My preference is salad style veg during the day for convenience and cooked bitter veg at night with my dinner. Variety is the key for vegetables and plant foods. People who eat 30 different sources in one week have been found to have the most diverse gut bacteria.
Foods That Provide Energy
The main source of energy in our diets come from fats and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are sources like potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, porridge, cereals, and crackers (i may have ordered them best to worst!). Healthy sources of fat are from foods like oily fish, olive oil, avocadoes, full fat yogurts and grass-fed meats. Fats are a better source of energy for slow steady activity and carbs for higher intensity activity. If you’re trying to lose body fat having a lower level of these foods will help your goals. If you don’t wish to lose body fat and have higher activity levels you may wish to have more. A general rule for dietary fats or carbohydrates is the less processed the better and always try and eat them with vegetables. See our carbohydrate article for more detailed information (carbohydrate facts).
When it comes to deciding on the timing of your meals there’s quite a few factors at play to take into consideration. The main factors I find when talking to clients are; preferences, body clock types, goals, and lifestyle demands.
First let’s start with breakfast, personally it’s my favourite meal of the day, the thought of coffee and breakfast is what gets me out of bed. I find a good breakfast looks after my muscle after a good night’s sleep, keeps me satiated and my energy levels high till lunch.
A significant amount of people just don’t enjoy breakfast, there maybe be some benefit to this if you’re looking to lose body fat in increase autophagy, as skipping breakfast may extend your fat burning time after your sleep. However, the downside to skipping breakfast is you may struggle to hit protein targets, which can effect muscle maintanence/ gains. if breakfast really isn't your thing, just make sure you consume adequate protein at lunch and dinner time.
If increasing or maintaining muscle is a main goal, you should definitely eat a breakfast with a significant amount of protein like eggs, a full fat greek yogurt with nuts or the very minimum a protein shake. My ideal breakfast personally is an spinach, mushroom, and cheese omelette, with some sort of potatoes, side salad, and the best streaky bacon money can buy.
Lunch is about restocking those energy levels from the efforts of the morning and maximising the nutrients you deliver to the body. What you eat here will have a big impact on whether you feel snoozy at that meeting or awake and alert. For me adequate protein in the meal is important for your muscle repair and feelings of alertness. I tend to have more salad style vegetables here for ease but cooked veg is great too. In regard to deciding how much carbohydrates you eat that should be dependent upon how much intense activity you’ve done or plan to do in the day. My preference is rice or potatoes if I'm going to be active or recovering from activity, and limited carbs if I'm not. I'm not a big fan of bread or sandwiches for lunch as it has as it causes blood sugar spikes and drops which leads to lethargy and brain fog. Pre-preparing lunch or batch cooking at the weekend will give you greater control over what you eat. See our lunch suggestion (batch cooking for lunch).
Regarding timing of dinner the main thing is trying to not eat too close before sleeping. Ideally you should leave three hours of time to digest food before heading to bed to improve sleep quality, immunity, and fat metabolism. I cannot stress enough the importance of looking after our muscles, if you do, you age better and reduce chronic illnesses. For this reason I want the bedrock of dinner to be a good quality source of protein that provides all the amino acids needed to repair the cells and all the hard work they did over the day. As I eat more salad vegetables at lunch, I like to eat cooked bitter green vegetables at night that provide more fibre and phytonutrients than salad veg, it also a great time to include the extra special things like garlic and ginger. When deciding how much rice or potatoes at dinner it will come down to how much activity I’ve done and how much I need to replace the lost glycogen stores. If your goal is fat loss, a smaller portion of carbs will suffice, lots of activity eat more. Again see our carb sheet for more info (carb fact sheet).
Theres a growing body of evidence that snacking isn’t ideal for our health or waistline. There are exceptions when I think its fine to snack and will do so myself. These are; 1. to increase protein if you've skipped breakfast, 2. if you want to gain weight or muscle, 3. if your doing alot of activity like a hike, a bike ride or heading to the gym.