Nutrition 101: Vital Aspects of a Healthy Meal Plan

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Are you ready to get started with a healthy meal plan but are unsure where to start? Nutrition is vital to any healthy lifestyle. If you are looking to get started with healthy meal plans, keep reading to see how nutrition affects your health, fitness, and weight loss and to get little tips to keep you motivated with your new healthy lifestyle.

Nutrition’s Impact on Health

The body requires a balance of nutrients in order to reach optimal performance on a day-to-day basis and keep it disease-free. Providing the body these nutrients through the foods we eat comes down to including a combination of essential nutrients at each meal - including vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fat.

According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, unhealthy eating habits are a main contributor to the obesity epidemic in the United States. About one-third of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of children are obese. Excess weight brings with it risk factors like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer. By making more informed and better food choices, you can help protect yourself from these health problems. The choices you make at each meal will affect how you feel, how you perform in your training, and your overall health, not just today, but tomorrow, and into the future as well.

Nutrition and Muscle-Building

If size is what you are after in the gym, it is essential to provide yourself with enough nutrition to repair and build your muscles after a hard training session. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, muscle loss starts to occur at around age 30, with an almost 8 percent reduction in lean muscle mass every decade thereafter. One of the ways to combat this muscle loss is through strength training supplemented with nutrition that includes up to five to six small, balanced meals throughout the day.

Protein is essential when building muscle with exercise. It is recommended to have protein make up about 35 percent of total calories for adults, or up to 1 pound per gram of lean body mass, depending on the person. Carbohydrates are also an important part of fueling your muscles. The carbohydrates you eat are converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles to power your workouts. When doing strength training, carbohydrates should make up about half of your caloric needs per day. This gives your body the extra energy it needs to fuel the muscle building process. These calories should come from quality sources, such as whole-grain products, fruits and veggies for the best strength-training boost.

Nutrition and Weight Loss

The number of calories has a direct impact on weight. Consume the same number of calories that your body burns over time and your weight will stay stable, whereas if you consume more than your body burns, your weight will go up. In order to burn fat, you must consume less than you burn. With this in mind, specific foods will contribute to weight loss more than others. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed a few reasons why eating more protein will help with weight control, including:

  • Satiety: People tend to feel fuller, on fewer calories, after eating protein than they do after eating carbohydrates or fat.
  • Greater thermic effect: It takes more energy to metabolize and store protein than other macronutrients, and this may help people increase the energy they burn each day.
  • Improved body composition: Protein seems to help people hang on to lean muscle during weight loss, and this, too, can help boost the energy-burning side of the energy balance equation.

Lower-carbohydrate/higher-protein diets have some weight-loss advantages. Carbohydrate quality is key and more important than carbohydrate quantity. Whole grains—whole wheat, brown rice, barley, and the like, especially in their less processed forms—are digested more slowly than refined grains due to their fiber content. They have a gentler effect on blood sugar, which may help keep hunger at bay. The same is true for most vegetables and fruits.

Sticking with It

Sticking with a plan is probably the biggest factor in meeting your fitness goals. Here are some tips that can help you stay with it through hard times:

  • Choose minimally processed, whole foods: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, healthy sources of protein (fish, poultry, beans), and plant oils.
  • Limit sugary beverages, refined grains, potatoes, red and processed meats, and other highly processed foods, such as fast food.
  • Eat real, whole foods you love.
  • Plan for the unexpected, such as going out to eat or office parties. Plan ahead and prepare—for instance, know the menu ahead of time or pack healthy snacks for the office.
  • Make it public. Let people know how your meal plan is going or get a partner and report to each other. This gives you accountability.
  • Watch out for sneaky calories, such as those in sodas, teas, coffees, sports drinks, vitamin waters, and heavy sauces and dressings.
  • Don’t starve yourself. If your meal plan is too extreme, you won’t be able to stick with it. Allow yourself a cheat day with your favorite foods, but be mindful of the portion sizes and plan for it in advance.

Have a specific goal in mind. Plan your attack. Write out meal plans and grocery lists and set goals both small and large.  

Nutrition and building a healthy meal plan can seem a little overwhelming at first. To help you get started on your path toward your goals, you can speak to a nutritionist or enlist the help of a personal trainer to cut through the confusion and help you create your healthy meal plan.

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