The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Diet: Part 2 – Bricks & Mortar

In Part 1 of this series, we defined a health-promoting diet by nutrient density.

Today, we’re going to look at foundation nutrients – what are the baseline nutrition decisions to make on a meal-by-meal basis for optimal health and body composition?

Remember the overarching question we asked last week that precipitated this whole series:

What do I eat to lose/maintain a weight I’m happy with, and achieve optimal health?

The concept of foundation nutrition, or “bricks and mortar”, is simple: a baseline diet, the principles of which are universal before we get into any other considerations.

Bricks & Mortar

Keeping with the theme of simplicity, here is the baseline diet triage:

  1. Protein
  2. Veg and some fruit
  3. Essential fats

That’s it. I call it a foundation or baseline diet because whatever you flesh your diet out with – more carbs or more fat – depends on several factors that we’ll deal with in subsequent posts (personal preference, current body composition goals, health status etc.), but this baseline is universal.

And when you begin to make these choices on a meal-by-meal basis, you end up with a diet that is:

  1. Nutrient dense
  2. Calorie controlled
  3. Satiating
  4. Fat loss stimulating
  5. Health promoting

Let’s look at each component in turn, so you can set up your baseline diet…

The Baseline Effect – Protein

The easiest diet hack of all time – eat more protein. I’ve written before about protein, and some of the myths that surround it.

Here’s 8 reasons why I consider it the no.1 foundation nutrient:

  1. You’ll control appetite better and consume less calories over the course of the day
  2. You’ll lose more fat
  3. You’ll maintain that fat loss (unlike 90% of dieters)
  4. You’ll keep your muscle if dieting
  5. You’ll put on muscle if you’re eating a calorie surplus
  6. You’ll be less susceptible to ‘hedonic’ food signals (i.e. the desire for junk)
  7. You’ll have stronger bones (especially as you age)
  8. You’ll have a better cardiometabolic profile, independent of weight loss

Important caveatall of this applies to plant-based diets, from weight loss to the fact that pea protein is just as effective as whey for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and promoting strength gains.

Certain factors, however, do need addressing for protein in plant-based diets, namely:

Addressing limiting amino acids

In particular lysine and leucine. By emphasising legumes as the primary protein source in a plant based diet (one cup every day, minimum), lysine and leucine requirements can be met – add hard cheeses (1oz) and eggs (2-4) (if lacto-ovo vegetarian), roasted soybeans/tofu (1oz), or pumpkin seeds (1oz) to round out intake of these amino acids.

Focus on 24-hour/daily intake

This relates to the issue of ’complete’ proteins, or food combining (e.g. eating brown rice with legumes), which is often advised for plant-based diets, but is not necessary. The important factor is obtaining adequate protein from multiple plant-based sources sources over the course of the day i.e. shifting emphasis to 24-hour intake vs meal-by-meal combining.

Supplement to meet needs

This is more important for athletes or weekend warriors – it can be hard to meet a specific protein target without carrying calories with you, as all plant-based protein sources come with added carbs (e.g. if from beans), or fats (e.g. if from nuts/seeds). A good plant-based protein powder can help fill the gaps, without added carbs/fats. Pea protein or brown rice protein are the best options, but there is a caveat with plant-based protein powders – you’ll want a much higher dose (around 30-50g) to obtain the amount of leucine to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

Ok, you now know why protein is the primary foundation nutrient. The question is, how much? Keeping with the theme of simplicity, the Precision Nutrition palm-based recommendations are hard to beat: two palm-sized servings for me at each meal; one for women.

For plant based dieters, make that one cup beans/lentils/legumes for men, half-cup for women, every day (minimum), rounded out with nuts, seeds and ‘complete’ plant-based proteins like quinoa, buckwheat, chia and hemp seeds, soy, and spirulina.

The Baseline Effect – Veg & Fruit

There are so many aspects of the nutrition discussion that are up for debate. Through all of this, there is one element that is incontrovertible: eating more veg is protective against disease.

What constitutes a foundational, bricks and mortar element of a diet more than the biologically active phytonutrient compounds that are exclusively found in vegetables, fruits and plants? 

Phytonutrients may have important roles in protecting against cardiovascular disease, reducing the risk of cancer, protecting against osteoporosis, decreasing inflammation, and providing antioxidant protection.

There are over 900 phytonutrients, and even a medium sized piece of fruit could have over 100 such compounds.

The colour of the vegetable or fruit denotes its particular phytonutrient makeup – hence why “eat the rainbow” is solid nutrition advice.

For this baseline aspect to your diet, follow these simple recommendations:

  1. Eat 3-5 different colours of non-starchy vegetables with each meal (see this cool checklist from PN for ideas)
  2. Eat as much of it as you like
  3. Eat 1-2 pieces of whole fruit (or 1-2 cups berries/mix of one or the other) per day

Easy, yeah? Eat non-starchy veg with every single meal, eat as much as you like, and eat 1-2 pieces of whole fruit or 1-2 cups berries every day (based on personal preference).

The Baseline Effect – Essential Fats

I’ve written a number of posts recently about the importance of marine omega-3 fish oils to human health, and the focus of Part 3 of this series is dietary fat – so I’m not going to duplicate much here.

Essential fats are not something we need to ensure on a meal-by-meal basis like protein and veg, but on a daily basis we want to balance omega-6 and omega-3 intake. The evolutionary ratio of 2:1 omega-6:omega-3 has been replaced by the Standard Western Diet of almost 15:1-20:1, which is associated with low-grade systemic inflammation and the full spectrum of ‘Non-Communicable Diet-Induced Disease.’

Getting this part of the baseline diet in check is easy:

  • If you eat fish – then make oily, omega-3 rich fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) your protein serving at 3-4 meals per week
  • If you don’t eat fish but are not plant-based – then supplement with a marine omega-3 fish oil supplement to a baseline of 1g combined EPA & DHA per day. (Read this for more specific dose information)
  • If you’re plant-based – then supplement with an algae oil-based EPA & DHA supplement (read the link above for more specifics)
  • For everyone – minimise processed and packaged foods, and vegetable oils in cooking. These are all the major sources of omega-6’s in the Standard Western Diet

So ultimately it comes to this: eat less processed food, and eat more fish (or supplement if you don’t). 

Building Your Foundation

You know now how to build a foundation diet that is health promoting, disease preventing, nutrient dense and ultimately low in overall calories (we’ll fill in the gaps to meet energy needs in the next couple of posts).

To recap, your baseline simplified diet:

  • Eat protein with every meal
    • Of those protein servings, make at least 3 meals oily, omega-3 rich fish to cover essential fat needs
    • If plant-based, then eat at least 1 cup (for men – 1/2 cup for women) serving of beans/lentils/legumes every day 
  • Eat unlimited non-starchy veg with every meal
    • Aim for 3-5 colours at each meal, and all 5 over the course of the day
  • Eat 1-2 pieces of whole fruit per day
    • Or 1-2 cups of berries. Or a mix of both
  • Balance your essential fats
    • If eating fish, then follow the recommendation above and reduce omega-6’s into balance by minimising processed foods and vegetable oils
    • If not eating fish, then supplement with fish oils if not plant-based, or algae oil if plant-based, and reduce omega-6’s into balance by minimising processed foods and vegetable oils

And thus, your foundation is laid.

Next week we’ll look at the importance of dietary fat, and considerations for when you might flesh out your diet with more, or less, of it.