It’s a widely accepted fact that whilst exercise/training are fantastic additions to a healthy lifestyle, the main thing we need to do in order to optimise our health and wellbeing is eat a nutritious diet.
You’ve probably tried to improve your nutrition since starting boot camp, and that’s awesome, but I’d wager that most people could still use some guidance; after all, there is a ton of conflicting information available which isn’t always easy to whittle down into straight forward, truthful and practically applicable advice.
This article should be the first port of call for someone who wants to feel better, sleep better and start to see dramatically improved results from their exercise regime. First, I need to define ‘health’ as this will form the basis of a lot of the information I’m going to explain.
Health is defined as ‘’A complete state of mental, social and physical wellbeing, not just the absence of ailment’’ (1). This is an important point to make, as I think that people tend to either think that they are healthy because they either aren’t overweight or ‘feel alright’, despite underlying deficiencies or other bad goings on. Or they assume that because they are in great shape they are completely healthy, in the face of poor mental or social wellbeing.
Below I will list 5 tips that you can action very easily to help improve your diet by getting the most nutrition out of every calorie you eat. How quickly you action them is up to you, but my advice will always be to start small and build up slowly. If you are just starting out it is imperative that you slowly build habits which you can keep for life, rather than shooting for THE BEST DIET, NOW, because it’s very difficult to maintain a dramatic life change for very long, and in nutrition it’s the long game which truly dictates your results.
There’s no rush, no pressure, no worries. Take it slow and get it right first time!
Whilst I’ve said single ingredient foods, what I mean are basic things that can be considered to be an ingredient in a meal. This means meat, fish, nuts, seeds, potatoes, rice, dairy, wholegrain pastas or breads, fruits, vegetables and things like whey protein. These basic things are what will give your diet the solid foundation it needs.
By opting for whole foods for the majority of your nutrition, you will cover one important base much more easily, MICRONUTRIENTS. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting things like phytonutrients. Vitamins such as vitamin K, vitamin B12 and vitamin C alongside minerals such as Zinc, Magnesium and Iron are vital for both health and training recovery, and wholefoods are going to be your best source every single time.
This one is simple to action. Try to make the VAST majority of your food choices something you could buy at a farmers market, or something you could (theoretically) find yourself in nature. Sure, some things like breads, whey protein and dairy would be difficult to find in a field, but you get my point. Basic foods do powerful things, Pot Noodles don’t. By taking the simple step to move to a mostly whole-food diet, you will likely drop fat, improve your health, and be able to train harder whilst recovering faster, without counting a single calorie or gram of anything!
This should total around 7-11 portions throughout the day, and try to get some different colours in there. Plant matter should be easily the largest portion of your plate every time you eat (by food volume, probably not by calorie). I always see people eating a small handful of spinach, or 2-3 florets of broccoli, but that’s rubbish – get it in! A salad doesn’t have to be boring, fill it with pickles, tomatoes, cucumber, artichoke hearts, olives, avocadoes, nuts, raw broccoli and cauliflower, carrots, baby corn and any other colourful crunchy stuff you can lay your hands on. Learn different cooking methods for other veggies like roasting sprouts with oil and garlic, or turning squash into chips and make it enjoyable. Eating a load of vegetables will give you the greatest range of vitamins and minerals and of any food available.
More than this, though, a diet rich in plant matter provides a large amount of plant-based fibre. While I know fibre isn’t the most exciting subject, it actually has profound effects on your health and body composition.
Most importantly for dieters, fibre promotes satiety in the short and long term. One of the main signals for fullness during a meal is the physical fullness of your stomach, which is achieved through consuming foods which pack a lot of bulk. Fibre-rich vegetables give you the most physical volume per calorie of any food, and that fibre slows gastric emptying (how fast food leaves your stomach) so that food will stay in your digestive system for a long time. You get fuller on fewer calories and stay fuller for longer, which is a huge benefit seeing as the main reason most people give for struggling on a diet is hunger.
Protein is simultaneously the single most important and single most ignored macronutrient out there. While there are always differences of opinion and arguments about nutrition from various authorities, the one thing that just about everyone agrees on is that the average person should probably be eating more protein.
Protein not only helps to build and repair muscle, it’s beneficial for feeling full, it’s needed for producing hormones and controlling cellular function, it’s needed for good skin quality and hair health, and it’s fantastic for fat loss as we burn a lot of calories simply by digesting it! This is known as TEF or the Thermic Effect of Food, called so because the energy is lost as heat.
You need about 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight to support your boot camp training effectively. The actual recommended number is 2.3-3.1grams per kilo of lean body mass (2), which is quite a lot by typical public standards, but the best way to actually ensure you are getting what you need is to simply make sure that you build every meal you eat around a complete protein source.
Work out how much protein you need (it’s usually somewhere between 120-200g per day), think about how many meals per day you have, and do some simple division. After that all you need to do is check some food labels when you do your weekly shop.
Say you weigh 70kg, that’s 140g protein per day meaning if you eat 4x you need about 35g protein per meal. That could look something like:
**Note I only listed protein sources here, this is NOT a meal plan**
Do this consistently and good things will start to happen.
Macronutrients are a collective term for protein, carbohydrates and fats, and by eating them all in moderate ratios you will be in the best position to get the most out of your food and training.
We need carbohydrates for glycolitically demanding activities, meaning things fuelled by glycogen (the body’s storage of carbohydrates, found in muscle cells and your liver) such as lifting weights, sprinting around a rugby pitch, and boot camps! Sustaining a highly intense training session without carbohydrates is very difficult as anaerobic activity, which is anything lasting under around a minute, is fuelled almost entirely by carbs, meaning you’ll quickly run out of gas if you skip on the rice and bread too much.
Likewise, we require fats for vitamin absorption, hormonal regulation, overall health and even satiety (we also need it to make food taste good, but that’s just my opinion!). A diet that is too low in fat can lead to vitamin insufficiency which causes TONS of health problems, including poor skin, sight problems, depression, bone brittleness and diarrhoea.
Eliminating one of these food groups, admittedly, will probably result in weight loss. It does this not through either of them being inherently fattening, but because when you eliminate 1/3 of all food in the world, it’s difficult to replace the calories unless you try to do it on purpose, which dieters of course don’t do. Eat no carbs or fat and you inevitably eat fewer calories; you will experience a calorie deficit i.e. eating less than you burn, which is the MAIN requirement for fat lost. The lesson you should take from the fact that low carb and low fat followers BOTH get success (4), is that you CAN lose weight and get in great shape whilst still eating the other macronutrient in relatively large amounts, provided your calories are in line!
What I mean here is that a healthy diet is one which provides you with a good range of, and a proper amount of, the things you need to be healthy, namely protein, carbs, fats, fibre and micronutrients. That doesn’t say that it’s one which EXCLUDES anything. A healthy diet doesn’t exclude pizza, or chips, or sweets, rather a healthy diet emphasizes whole ‘healthy’ foods 80-90% of the time.
First, moderate and flexible diets have better long-term adherence rates when studied (5). This means that a highly restrictive diet which may appear optimal at face-value, is actually the kind of diet which proves impossible to adhere to for the rest of a person’s life. The reason most people fail diets is not because they are weak, or greedy, or any of those things.
The reason most people fail in their lifestyle change is because they or society set unrealistic goals, rules and restrictions which will eventually cause them to cave in. The diet was set up to fail from day 1.
Whilst this diet will now be 90% awesome rather than ‘technically optimal’, it will be something you can do for the long haul. Fat loss is easy, fat loss maintenance – now that’s an achievement!
Secondly, I will return to my definition of health from earlier, where I mentioned mental and social health. If your diet causes you to miss numerous social occasions then it’s not promoting health. It’s promoting solitude which is a very bad thing for mental health, and quality of life.
Also, a final point here is to mention that any diet which labels foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can carry the rarely problematic, but very serious risk of promoting disordered eating (6). Eating healthily should be a positive thing which makes you feel awesome, look great, live longer and feel better. If your nutritional approach tells you that you aren’t allowed things, which then causes stress if you aren’t able to, or don’t manage to, stick to your rules, then this is a problem.
But whilst there are foods which may be considered optimal or suboptimal, reality dictates that you will want to eat, and should feel no guilt about eating, something from the second category from time to time.
The 90/10 rule dictates that provided you are "bang on" for 90% of the time, the other 10% doesn’t matter all that much. This means that if you eat 4 meals per day, 7 days per week (28 meals), then so long as 24 meals throughout the week are on point, if you eat within your caloric needs but go ‘off piste’ for the other 4 or so, it’s not going to harm your health or results. In fact, long term, you might even be better off!
As I touched on above, healthy eating is a holistic thing which encompasses far more than just weight loss and muscle gain. Healthy eating should enrich your life, so enjoy it!
Find and try new recipes using fresh, wholesome plant-based produce sourced locally wherever possible. Eat a variety of tasty and interesting protein sources, don’t cut out any foods or macronutrients, and above all don’t stress it too much.
If you cover the basics, the rest will all fall into place.