On your journey to become healthier or to lose weight you may become confused by the advice that you're given, should you choose organic foods, low-carb, get a water filter or start eating vegetables; is there a hierarchy of health?
I want to answer this question because it really can be a huge stumbling block for people to reach a healthier lifestyle. There is a process to follow and when important steps are skipped, the rest of the way becomes that much harder to go through. It's hard to help someone who is focused on the wrong part of the process and a lot of the time it can be a process of reeducation. So what do I mean by hierarchy? Have you ever heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?
Maslow was a psychologist who proposed an idea about how we as humans reach our potential in life. He created a pyramid where the bottom step, the largest and the first one to start at, focuses on attaining the survival basics for life like food and water. Only once you have the basics for survival can we focus on things like safety and security which would include having a home and a job. The top of the pyramid and the highest point is Self Actualization and it is also the last step to be reached and it's only by going through and achieving each of the prior steps that a person can successfully achieve and maintain the top of the list.
Health can be seen in the way as well. We have to master the basics and then we can move up the steps. It is important to master each step before attempting to move on to the next one so that we don't find ourselves falling back. When I first started to try and lose weight, my instinct was to try and eat foods that I had heard help people lose weight. So I was eating peanut butter like it was nothing, salads, and tuna but I wasn't losing weight!!! Then I learned about calories and I realized I was eating a billion calories of peanut butter. Just because something is "healthy" doesn't mean we need a whole jar of it. I didn't know that though and it wasn't until I took the time to learn each of the steps that it started to make sense.
I now have a better understanding of health and I know that I need to ensure that each step is filled before trying to move up. I hope that this tool can help you with making decisions about how to use the information that is presented to you. I also recommend using Maslow's list as well since focusing on our health can be hard when we are being burdened by other issues in our life. (In this list I focus on physical health rather than mental and emotional health and I want to make sure that I let you know that both your mental and emotional health are very important as well and tackling any major issues may be important in order to be able to fully focus on physical health and to be able to maintain physical results long term.)
Step 1: Are you taking care of the basics?
Before you set off to change how you look or how you feel you should first make sure that you are taking care of yourself the right way. Often issues that seem to be caused by our nutrition or weight, can be traced back to stress or sleepless nights. A good way to start is by seeing your doctor for your yearly check up. Your doctor can let you know if you need to lose or gain weight and if there are any medical issues that you need to keep in mind before making any changes to your lifestyle. You can work on ensuring that you are getting the right amount of sleep each night and that you are managing any major stress triggers. You may want to take an inventory of your daily habits so that you can start to recognize any patterns or trends that lead you to feel stressed, tired, craving, or even cranky. By knowing what leads up to these triggers, you will know what you may struggle with as you start to change your lifestyle habits. Another basic that you want to note is whether you smoke cigarettes or drink lots of caffeine and alcohol. These specific habits can have a big effect on your nutrition or weight goals and it's something that your doctor can help you with if you wish to change them. This is the time to start learning about your health and establishing a good educational base for your journey.
Step 2. Are you getting the right amount of calories?
Before you start to look at ingredients and whether the chicken you are buying in organic, it is important that you understand how your body uses energy. In the simplest of terms ->>> if you eat more energy than your body can use, you will gain weight. If you use more energy than you are getting from your food, you will lose weight. It is important to find out what your energy needs are and then figure out what your current energy consumption looks like. You can then make adjustments based on whether you want to maintain your weight, gain it, or lose it. By knowing how many calories you need to eat and how many you are actually eating, you can start to look at where you may be able to make cuts or to add to your daily meals. It can be helpful to use an app like MyFitnessPal that allows you to enter your foods each day and it tells you the calories that you are getting in each day and per meal. This is where you get to learn about how your activity level affects your calorie needs. A person who runs for an hour each day needs a lot more energy from their food than a person who works at a desk and doesn't get any extra physical activity. By understanding how your activity levels can affect the amount of food you can eat, you can make decisions about how active you want to be and how much food you want to eat. If you don't want to eat less then getting more exercise can help offset eating too many calories. (Of Course this does not mean you should eat less than you need for your basic body functions in order to skip a workout or overeat unhealthy foods because you can exercise a lot; moderation and consistency will be key for longterm and balanced health) Another big thing to focus on at this point in the list is water, learn how much you need to drink and work your way up to it.
Are you getting the right Macronutrients?
Now that you have an understanding about how much energy your body needs and what level of activity you are comfortable with, you can focus on ensuring that you are getting in the right balance of Macronutrients. Macronutrients consist of the major nutrients that your body needs in order to function properly. Depending on your health goals the percentage of calories coming from each major group may differ. The AMDR (Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges) for healthy adults are set as 45-65% for Carbohydrates, 20-35% for Fats, and 10-35% for protein. (These percentages are referring to the total calories consumed on a daily basis and not on servings since portions are different for each macronutrient category. Learn more about the Macro nutrients and their roles in our nutrition here.) One reason that this is an important step to master before moving up is that it is really easy to be influenced by trends and fad diets, they are everywhere!!! So if someone is talking to you about following a low-fat or low-carb diet and you don't know what your body needs, you can actually hurt your body. There are tons of fad diets these days that have been shown to increase your chances of having heart disease or causing muscle deterioration but because they do help people lose weight, they stay popular. If your goal is to have sustainable and long-term success then losing weight at the expense of disease is not the way to go. Understand the reality of what the human body needs and what your body needs and then choosing your diet will be a much safer process.
Step 4. What time are you eating?
Nutrient Timing is the next step to master on your journey and once you have a good idea of how many calories you are needing to eat and what kind, it gets much easier to put them into the right times of the day! I'm sure you have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day or maybe you have heard that it is not a good idea to eat right before bed? Well both of those are actually pretty spot on. There will be variations based on the plan that you follow or the specifics of your day but overall it is important to try and spread out your nutrients so that you are eating the right portions, in the right amount of servings, at the right times of the day. You may want to start by analysing how you eat now, and then from there trying to even out your meals so that you're not having half of your food at lunch or at dinner. Keeping a food journal is a great tool to help you see what you are currently doing and plan how to change it if necessary. You may notice a lack of energy in between your breakfast and lunch and so a snack in between may be a good idea. Ideally your day should consist of you eating 3-6 times a day; that can consist of eating 3 big meals, 3 regular meals and 3 snacks, or 5 to 6 small meals. Ideally you want to get something in your belly every 2.5-3 hours, this helps your metabolism stay fairly active and consistent and can help with things like blood sugar levels and energy. It's really important that you don't skip meals! Working a balance between your macros so that you don't get all your fat in one meal can really help your overall efforts and make sure that you don't feel deprived at any of your meals.
Step 5. What is the quality of your food?
Okay so you know how much to eat, what to eat, and when to eat it. You got this down to the point of waking up and just knowing what to grab, right? Now you can focus on the composition of your food and the quality. Too many people focus wayyyyyy too much on this step and I am going to tell you right now that it does not matter how organic your ice-cream, chips, and cookies are...if you eat too much, you'll still gain weight and if you're only eating those products, you won't be getting the right micronutrients that your body craves. It's important to focus on getting high quality foods that have high levels of micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, enzymes, and phytonutrients. If you want to focus on getting foods without certain ingredients like additives, toxins, byproducts, or preservatives make sure that they are still fitting into your meal plan. A lot of the time products are marketed with a very intentional purpose of tricking consumers. They know that we don't know every single thing about nutrition and science (unless you're a nutrition scientist) and so they make products with huge labels that read "GLUTEN FREE" and "SUGAR-FREE" knowing that people seeking to be healthier will buy them. What they fail to disclose is that gluten free is only necessary if you have Celiac Disease or that sugar free does not mean it doesn't have simple carbs. Try to focus on getting in whole foods in the least processed state possible for you and keep learning about ingredients and slowly add things to your diet based on how your body reacts to them. (You will probably come across the term SUPERFOOD in your journey, watch this video where I discuss the meaning superfoods and whether you need them in your diet.) Then you can start to focus on buying foods based on their processing, such as buying grass-fed beef and eggs from free-range chickens or getting a good water filter to cut any unnecessary "toxins" or "chemicals".
Step 6. Do you need more?
I myself often market nutritional supplements and so I'm not going to lie, while I do believe that they are helpful and can be beneficial, not everyone needs them and they are not beneficial or vital for every person and in every situation. So if someone is telling you that you MUST have so&so product in order to lose weight or get more energy, keep in mind that they are making a sale and will tell you all the amazing things about their product. There are some amazing products out there and they can be very helpful but as a consumer, you must learn to make decisions based on your individual needs. Most healthy people with a healthy lifestyle and good varied nutrition can get all of the necessary nutrients from their diet and do not need extra supplementation. A lot of the time supplements are taken just as an added benefit and in order to ensure that there are no gaps in nutrition. There are some people that do need to take certain supplements because of health issues or diet types for instance people eating a Vegan Diet need to make sure to get B12 from fortified foods or vitamin supplements because their diet will not provide this essential nutrient. A visit to your doctor can help you figure out if you have any vitamin or mineral deficiencies by means of a blood test. Being deficient in certain nutrients can cause a host of health issues and symptoms so if you are eating a health diet and are having issues, then talking to your doctor might be necessary and it's good to remember that Vitamin Toxicity is also a real thing and may be at the root of health issues as well. On top of nutrient based supplements, there are other types like Ergogenic Aids which are sport supplements, herbal supplements which can help with weightloss or mood issues, and diet aids which are just for weight loss. Not all supplements are good for you!!!! There are a ton of products on the market that can be dangerous to take and there are lots of products that aren't even what they say on the label. Because supplements are not regulated the same way as medicine, it is important to look up the manufacturers of the products that you take and that you talk to your doctor ahead of time if you have any health conditions. It's important to remember that the reason this is the last step on the pyramid is because you need to have hit all the other marks first in order for it to be the most beneficial to you. Sometimes it can be enticing to take a diet pill instead of eating healthy but in the end it can do more harm than good. While certain supplements can help from the beginning, the ultimate intention should be to hit all these marks throughout your journey to obtain long term results.
I really hope that this list helps you make better decisions about your health. I am going through it along with you so don't hesitate to ask questions and ask for resources! I would love to help you with your journey. I do also offer a free coaching session, so make sure to take advantage of it. :)