Let’s be honest, nutrition can be confusing. It doesn’t matter what topic you research, you will always find contradictory information telling you to do different things. Although some nutrition topics are more debated than others, many people are still confused about some of the foundational nutrition principles and are making common nutrition mistakes that are preventing them from reaching their goals. So, here are the 8 most common nutrition mistakes that I see people making and some simple tips on how to ensure you’re on the right track.
1. Paying Attention to Calories but not Food Quality
The foundation of any good diet begins with the quality of the food that you eat. Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain weight, run faster, improve digestion, support aging, or simply eat better, the quality of the food that you eat is more important than how much you eat, when you eat, or what supplements you take. Unfortunately, too many people focus on calories instead of the quality of the food making up those calories. Eating 1,800 calories in the form of processed food will not provide the same nutritional benefit as fresh, nutrient-dense, whole foods. It’s important to understand that not all calories are created equal and the body is a lot more than a simple math equation. Everything that you eat affects all aspects of your physical and mental health; from your stress level to your sleep habits to the state of your skin to your digestive health and so much more. The quality of the food that you consume impacts your hormones, which are the master regulators of your health and weight, as well as your hunger cues and cravings, which will ultimately impact what you eat next. So, instead of only counting calories, start counting the chemical and ingredients in your food, and focus on food quality over quantity alone.
2. Paying Attention to Food Quality but not Calories
If you want to learn to eat well, you need to focus on food quality first, but you need to focus on total food volume as well. Yes, olive oil, avocado, kale, and chicken are all healthy whole foods, but that doesn’t give you free rein to eat as much as you want! Remember, even too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, especially when it comes to weight loss. Although a person may be consuming a diet rich in whole foods, if you are not monitoring how much you are eating you can slow down your progress. This is especially true for sources of fat in the diet, given that fat contains twice the amount of calories per serving as carbohydrates and protein, so an extra spoonful here and there can quickly add up over time. Whole foods are far more satiating than processed foods and can, therefore, help to better navigate your own hunger cues, however, over-consumption of whole foods over time can still impede health goals, especially when it comes to weight loss.
3. Overconsuming Natural Sugars
Yes, fruit, fruit juice, dried juice, maple syrup, and honey are natural sweeteners and much better options than refined sugars, however, there is still a limit to how much you can or should consume. All forms of dietary sugar, whether they are natural or refined, break down into glucose (sugar) by our digestive tract, and our body can only handle so much sugar at one time. When consumed in the presence of fiber, such as fresh fruit, the absorption rate of sugar to the bloodstream is much slower, but when consumed in concentrated formats, such as fruit juice, dried fruit, maple syrup, or honey, they are quick to hit the bloodstream which can have a negative impact on one’s overall blood sugar and health. It is certainly best to consume more natural sugars than refined sugars, however, it is also best that natural sugars be consumed in the presence of fiber. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to consume more fresh fruit than concentrated sources (such as dried fruit and fruit juice), and also consume more vegetables than fruit, which generally contain less sugar and more fiber per serving, to help mitigate the damaging effects of all forms of sugar.
4. Undereating Protein
No, protein is not the cure-all solution to health, but a large majority of people continue to under consume protein on a daily basis. When the standard North American diet looks a little something like; a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, granola bars and crackers for snacks, and pasta for dinner, it’s easy to see how many people are missing protein in their diet. Although protein is often only seen as important for athletes and bodybuilders need, in truth, everyone needs protein. Proteins are molecules found in our food that are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of life. Although most popular for muscle building, these amino acids have many different roles in the body including acting as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. The protein in our food also helps to replace “worn-out” cells, transport various substances throughout the body, and aid in growth and repair so without adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function optimally. Not only does protein has physical functions in the body, but protein is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning that it will help to keep you fullest the longest, balance your blood sugar, and minimize cravings. Although the exact amount of protein required will vary from person to person based on their goals, as a general rule of thumb, you should consume a source of protein, animal or plant-based protein, at every meal.
5. Avoiding all Forms of Fat
Eat fat, get fat, right? Not quite. The idea that fat, especially saturated fat, is bad for you is the root of hundreds of other nutrition myths and is more damaging to your health than beneficial. Not only does the consumption of fat not impact weight at a linear rate, but saturated fat has been proven not to be the dietary evil it was made out to be. In fact, the consumption of whole food sources of fat in the diet has been shown to improve cardiovascular risks, strengthen the immune system, improve brain health, improve lung health, improve liver health and support nutrition absorption. Therefore, avoidance of whole food forms of fat in the diet does much more harm than good. On the contrary, it is the man-made refined and processed forms of fat, that we have been led to believe are “heart-healthy”, such as vegetable oils, margarine, and butter alternatives, that are the most damaging to our health. So, instead of opting for fat-free, low-fat, and non-fat options, and opt for natural fats such as butter, red meat, dairy, and animal fats, consume them in appropriate amounts, and avoid man-made fats instead.
6. Relying on Supplements Instead of Food
It’s important to understand that supplements are 1% of the health equation. Yes, there may be specific periods of time when supplements can provide a much-needed boost or support, but assuming that supplements make up for a poor diet is misleading. Just as the name implies, supplements are a supplement to a healthy diet, not a replacement for it. Although the supplement industry promises silver bullets and quick fixes, that is not the reality of the situation. Not to mention, the human body does a much better job at digesting, absorbing, and assimilating nutrients from whole foods as opposed to those that come in a capsule. Humans have adapted to get nutrients from whole foods since most nutrients require enzymes, synergistic co-factors, and organic mineral activators to be properly absorbed, which is not always the case with supplements. Moreover, most studies show that standard multivitamins provide little to no benefit and can actually cause nutrient imbalances since manufacturers often use the cheapest ingredients possible to create their formulas. So, before you go and spend all of your disposable income on powder and pills, do your best to address your actual food choice if you want to create real, long-lasting health changes, and supplement strategically, with high-quality supplements, only as needed.
7. Thinking that Fresher is Always Better
Of course, frozen pizzas and microwave dinners are a less-than-ideal choices, but when it comes to a whole food, frozen is just as good as fresh. Freezing food is simply a method of preservation, much like pickling, fermenting, and curing, that is used to keep perishable foods for longer periods of time. Freezing whole foods does not diminish their nutritional value, in fact, it’s quite the opposite, it helps to preserve them. Although it might be ideal to eat fresh foods all year round, that is not the reality of the seasons. Freezing seasonal fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood is simply a way to help extend the lifetime of the harvest. Not to mention, frozen fruits and vegetables are often picked at the peak of ripeness making them more nutrient-dense than those that were picked pre-ripe and flown thousands of miles to land “fresh” on the grocery store shelf. So, whether it’s frozen meat, frozen seafood, frozen fruit, pickled veggies, or fermented foods, there are many methods of food preservation that can actually help to maintain, and even increase, the nutritional value of our food.
8. Thinking that One “Bad” Meal Ruins Everything
The key to a healthy, balanced lifestyle is consistency. One meal, one day, or even one week of indulgence will not undo weeks, months, and years of balanced choices. Eating well is about the long game, not the short game, and if you focus too narrowly on one treat or one meal you can lose perspective. Creating a balanced diet that works in the long term includes indulgences, they are built into the program, and they are not separate from it. Of course, frequency matters, but just because you eat a cookie, some pizza, a slice of cake, or all of the above does not mean that you’ve “undone” any of the work that you have done up to that point. One treat, one meal, or one weekend away, is not going to revert any healthy choices you’ve made, it’s simply going to help you create balance. What is important to avoid is the decision to throw in the towel, binge eat, and allow one treat to take you completely off course. To use an analogy, if you tripped and fell down one stair would you throw yourself down the entire flight? No, you’d catch yourself and keep going. The goal of eating well is about progress and consistency, not perfection. So, instead of beating yourself up, enjoy your treats, move on, and then get back to real food.
The Bottom Line
While there is most certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution to nutrition, creating a healthy diet is best accomplished by prioritizing whole foods, and consuming a good balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and fats, while honoring your hunger and fullness cues. With that in mind, it is also important to remember that nutrition is determined by the context of your overall diet and lifestyle, not one individual meal or snack, and there is most definitely room for treats, sweets, and indulgence in a healthy diet.