Expert Advice: How to change your diet in 3 easy steps
I often get asked a hundred questions when people find out what I do for a living; there is endless interest in nutrition and dieting as a topic. You can scroll through any lifestyle media website or thumb the pages of any popular magazine and find the latest trends and advice. Almost every week a new movement gathers momentum.
Amidst it all though, I have always found it best to keep it simple and start with the big picture before even worrying about the small bit players in your diet.
This is my big picture and a simplified way to assess your diet and make a few changes that might make all the difference in getting you on the path to whatever your goals may be.
1. How often do I eat?
Keep a journal of the snacks you have in between meals. Ignore your meals for now and record the following over the course of a week:
- WHAT you are eating and drinking, and
- WHY you are eating or drinking in particular
You may find the WHAT are high energy foods adding significant calories to your day. You may find the WHY is a combination of boredom, habit or emotions (stress/depression/excitement etc.) and not the real reason you would need to snack – hunger.
Real hunger is not being able to withhold food or drink for another 10 minutes, characterised by trembling, inability to concentrate, dizziness and headaches. How often have you experienced this?
The 6-7 small meal a day trend started a while back with promises of keeping your metabolism going. In my experience, it more often than not leads to over-consuming calories and the very small effect it has on metabolic rate is not worth the risk of over-eating.
If your goal is growth, mass gain or if your daily energy requirements are extremely high (elite athletes training multiple times per day) then eating more frequently is a practical way to get in enough food. For everyone else, try stick to 3 meals per day.
If you find that you have been cutting back on the snacks, but it is still driven by hunger then the next two steps will help address this.
2. How refined are my foods?
Now we start to look at your meals and choices of foods.
- Are you relying on packages, pills and potions to get through the day, or
- Are you eating real food, ingredients or dishes that look like something that has grown or breathed at some point?
Refined and processed foods have become staples and a quick fix for a life too “busy” to prepare your own meals. We have also lost or never learnt basic skills in the kitchen. If you rely on ready-made meals, takeaway foods, restaurants and microwave dinners then the likelihood is that the volume of food you are eating is disproportionally high in calories, added sugars and fats, salt and who-knows-what-else. This is not great for the waist-line or long-term health.
Start by having one less of these “easy” meals per week. This means cooking or preparing one more dish every week. It could be dinner, lunch or breakfast. A small start is still a good start. It might also allow you to learn a new technique, try something in the kitchen, find a new recipe or ingredient and take a first step to being responsible for what goes into your mouth.
The goal here is to increase reliance on real foods and this will hopefully spill over to the “easy” choice meals and takeaways that are unlikely to disappear.
This means looking out for unrefined starches (wholegrain cereals or root vegetables with skin), plenty of vegetables and fruit, quality protein (unprocessed meat, chicken, fish, legumes) and decent fats (nuts, seeds, olives, dairy, avocado). If these foods are the mainstay of your diet in unadulterated form then give yourself a pat on the back.
3. Do I eat enough protein?
Choosing unrefined foods generally means your fiber intake will be higher – one key element in keeping you fuller for longer and avoiding snacking.
Protein is next on the list.
Take a look at your meals and evaluate whether there is a source of protein in each meal. If you find there is one particular time of the day that you always get hungry (mid-morning or mid-afternoon are common) then take a look at the previous meal first.
Good sources of protein include milk, yoghurt, eggs, meat, chicken, fish and beans. Are any of your meals missing one of these?
The chances are breakfast might be. Try adding one of these protein rich foods to that meal.
If you have protein rich foods in each meal and still cannot keep full or shift the centimetres then have a look at the ratio of this compared to your carbohydrate rich foods. Try to keep your protein and carbohydrate foods to similar sizes or amounts. A full hand/fist size of each is a guide. Carbohydrate rich foods include cereals, bread, root vegetables, fruit, rice, pasta, sugar.
This is another useful tool for those times when you have to rely on ready-made meals: read the nutritional info and choose an option with protein and carbohydrate numbers close together.
These are the 3 simple questions you need to help evaluate your diet:
- How often do I eat?
- How refined are my foods?
- Do I eat enough protein?
Reducing the unnecessary snacking and ensuring that your meals are balanced i.e. not short of protein, fat or fiber will help you achieve your fitness goals.
Let us know how you get on. If none of these make a difference it might be time to chat to someone like a registered dietician (see ADSA website) to have a deeper look at your diet.
Adrian Penzhorn R.D. (S.A.)