It’s the word we all dread, but the word we must all inevitably face at some point in our lives. Don’t worry, the negative connotations associated with dieting are almost always derived from the most extreme diets. Unfortunately, these are often the most popular as well, because they do get results. Whatever your opinion of dieting may be, it’s important to know that it doesn’t have to be hard.
Rather than go into detail about each and every popular diet available on the market, it’s much easier to dispel common misunderstandings by explaining how our bodies use food. Knowing what your body needs will help you tell the difference between a good diet and a fad diet (yes, fad = bad).
Our bodies require energy to operate. We get that energy from food. The unit we usually measure that energy with is the calorie. When we consume food, our bodies use the calories stored in that food to perform the millions of processes our bodies perform on a daily basis.
When we consume more calories than we need at the moment, our bodies store those excess calories in the form of fat cells. When we don’t have any calories coming in through digestion, our bodies intuitively turn to our stored fat cells to get the energy they need to continue operating. The three main categories of food that our bodies use for energy are fats, carbohydrates (carbs), and protein.
The fact of the matter is, our bodies need each of these nutrients. Fad diets tend to try to completely deprive our bodies of at least one of those nutrients, or at least reduce our intake below optimal levels. Optimal levels vary, but out of all the calories we consume, protein should make up 10%-35% of those calories, fat should be 20%-35%, and carbohydrates should fill in the gap to complete your daily recommended caloric intake. Note that it’s not the grams of each that you’re comparing to create this nutrient profile, but rather the amount of calories that come from each group of nutrients (calories from protein, calories from fat, and calories from carbs).
Now to figure out how many calories you should be consuming each day, you should speak with your doctor, nutritionist or personal trainer. Once you have a caloric intake goal set, you need to know how each of the 3 primary nutrients contributes to that target caloric total. Each gram of protein and carbohydrates provides 4 calories of energy. Each gram of fat, however, provides 9 calories of energy. It’s very important to notice that fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. This is because you can quite literally eat half the amount of food in one day compared to normal, but still consume more calories than normal if the food you consume is high in fat.
Now again, your body needs all of these key nutrients, but it’s important to your nutrient profile balanced. The optimal percentage of each nutrient in your daily caloric intake will vary with age, fitness level, fitness goals, and even what your day’s activities include. No matter what your nutrient intake profile looks like, if you consume more calories than you burn, your body will store them as fat. Vice versa, if you consume fewer calories than your body burns, your body will turn to its stored energy sources to make up the deficit.
So now that you know the basics of how the nutrient profile of a diet should look, you should be able to approach your diet more wisely. It’s highly valuable to use a calorie tracking app like MyFitnessPal to get a good idea of how many grams of each nutrient you’ve consumed each day, and even more importantly how many calories all of those grams contribute to your caloric intake goal. If tracking each food at each meal sounds daunting, you can try just adding up the total calories as described on the nutrition label. Pay attention to the serving size and just do your best to gauge about how many calories you’ve eaten at each meal and snack. Most balanced meals will contain healthy nutrient profile proportions. For those with specific body composition goals though, tracking the specific nutrient percentages is recommended.