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.
Keeping with the theme of simplicity, here is the baseline diet triage:
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:
Let’s look at each component in turn, so you can set up your baseline diet…
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:
Important caveat: all 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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:
So ultimately it comes to this: eat less processed food, and eat more fish (or supplement if you don’t).
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:
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.