Nutrition is one of those things that constantly confuses people and even then they think they are getting it right they are mostly getting it wrong. I see and hear many different versions of meal timing and planning and mostly its just a kitchen soup with no idea as to when, why and how. Very little thought is given to the reason behind the type and timing of the meal and finally the string of meals placed together through an entire day to ensure consistency and a desired result. Its usually just a sense of I eat when I am hungry or I eat when I deserve it. I honestly wish it was that simple but its not and most people think about absolutely everything except nutrition. It’s merely an afterthought and then a major craving for undesirable calories. Treat it like that and one day it will unleash itself and show you how wrong you were. Energy, health, immunity, strength, focus and performance are not a given its proper nutrition that plays the pivotal role in determining them.
In my experience the hardest part of nutrition is the meal construction and this is what I am going to focus on in this blog. Creativity is what most people lack when it comes to making a meal and its often just a mix of puzzle pieces that don’t really make sense when you place them together.
So I am going to break the process down into steps in order to make sense of the how to construct a meal.
A meal is broken down into specific macros determined by the kind of nutrition plan you follow. Many dietitians give an eating plan without the in depth guidance and knowledge sharing, but to me it just doesn’t make sense if the follower of the plan doesn’t understand the reasons behind the food selection. There is no generalizing here this is about an individual and his or her health and performance goals that need to be taken into account. If an individual understands why when and how it would make a lot more sense to understanding the kinds of choices they can make as opposed to sticking to a rigid menu. I use a specific plate puzzle and order of selection which simplifies things quite nicely. My plate is broken down into 4 zones. Proteins, healthy carbs, healthy fats and earned carbs. Each is there for a specific reason and I will expand on it below.
Protein is one of those macros that needs to be fairly accurate. The amount of protein you consume during the day needs to be a measurable and is usually based on grams per kilogram of body weight depending on requirements. You can read my previous blog Protein Myths to get some insight into the inner workings of protein. In summary though protein requires a measured value. Lets say for an endurance athlete that value is 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. That means a 65kg athlete would probably eat around 90 grams of protein in a day. Protein can only be absorbed in smaller amounts over time and this is usually around 20-25grams in 3 hour periods. Meaning the 90 grams would need to be split up over the day. I would probably split it up over 5-6 meals meaning around 3 x 20-25gram main meals and 2-3 8gram-15gram servings spaced a nice amount of time apart. Now if we go back to the plate puzzle its simple. Based on the meal pick your protein and protein volume. Lets say its a main meal with a 25gram protein serving. Then a chicken breast will suffice and that can be added to the plate. Protein done lets move to the next piece of the puzzle healthy carbs.
This is my favorite part of the plate mainly because I get to eat pretty much all the healthy stuff and I think about this in terms of nutrient density. I love rich colored nutrient dense foods. This is where I throw in the green leafy veggies such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard the colorful bell peppers, tomatoes, chilies and then things like mushrooms, artichokes or my steamed or simmered veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, asparagus etc. Anything that has a rich health benefits and a low net carb content will fit into this section of the plate. Its crucial because its filling it satiates and it strengthens.
Fats are crucial to a healthy nutrition plan and they are broken down into two main types saturated fats coming from animals and unsaturated or plant based fats. If you eat animal food such as dairy, eggs or meat of course there is fat contained alongside the protein and of course when speaking about dairy there is lactose which is a form of sugar. Any time you eat an animal product try to understand the break down of the macros to prevent you from over doing it with your plate puzzle. Its one of the reasons I stick to lean proteins and plant based fats in order to make sure I control the macros easily and reap the health benefits of plant based foods. I do advocate that a larger portion of fats should be unsaturated and the small portion saturated it will be far easier to manage your intake. The type of fats I generally incorporate into my meals are avocado, flax seeds, sesame seed or tahini, chia seeds, nut butters (high in fat but contain protein and sometimes a small carb portion). I look for fats with health and energy benefits as that is my major focus. When dealing with dual foods in the carb/protein the carb/fat and the protein/fat scenarios make sure that you understand the percentages as this can impact your over all meal. One of the main reasons to pick what I call near pure macro foods to ensure simplicity.
What is an earned carbohydrate? Its quite simple its a carbohydrate with a high net carb content which provides a fair amount of glucose to the system. Starches and grains will fall into this category as well as fruits. Why earned carbohydrate? Because its only needed to stabilize blood sugar and replenish glycogen stores so mainly I look at earned carbohydrates from a recovery perspective or fuelling perspective. These carbohydrates should be limited and only eaten when necessary as this is where the health and performance issues begin. Earned carbs will really only be on the plate when its post exercise and less often pre-race or long training sessions. Some fruits such as berries have a slightly lower carb portion especially when eaten in small quantities and that do have health benefits but again measure and control.
The healthy fats and earned carbohydrates portion of the plate should be considered together like a balance scale. If the carb portion is higher then drop the fat portion down, if the fat portion is higher then drop the earned carbs down. There is a fine balance between the two and this portion of the plate needs to be constructed according to requirements. You can read a previous blog of mine Recover Right with Proper Nutrition in order to better understand the carbohydrate portion of the meal.
The plate is now complete and if you follow this process of protein, healthy carb, healthy fat, earned carbs in that order you will not go wrong. You just need to understand what each food contains and make the appropriate selection.
Mix it up, try different foods and food groups and enjoy your meals.
all the best
Mark Wolff is an endurance, nutrition and physiology expert with over 20 years experience. An endurance multisport athlete with a triathlon, mountain biking and weight lifting background, he works extensively with professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports disciplines as well as those just wanting to change their lifestyles. He firmly believes that a person can only reach their full potential when their health and nutrition is down packed. Mark’s focus on nutrition and physiology is not just on training and racing, but he places major emphasis on recovery, immune system health, emotional stability, stress management and performance. Mark is co-founder of 32Gi, a sports nutrition company, focused mainly on health and endurance nutrition. He is a certified sports nutrition expert as well as a marathon, track, triathlon and cycling coach. He spends most of his time guiding athletes with a very holistic approach to blending training and nutrition for performance and health