5 STEPS TO ASSESS YOUR NUTRITION
Here are 5 easy ways to assess the quality of your diet yourself and easy ways to tell if you may need to make some adjustments. Seeking assistance in the nutrition department can be expensive, so why not try and screen yourself at home! Each category is something that throughout my 4-year education in nutrition and personal experience, I find to be of the upmost importance in someone’s diet. While each one is important it is ok not to be doing fantastic in all areas, the self-assessment portion is to see which area needs the most work and should be your new focus! If you have any more questions for me about these steps or about how you can achieve your goals; leave a comment, send me an email, or DM on my Instagram and I would be happy to help.
As many of you know the macronutrient composition of your diet plays a huge role in our health. But what exactly are macronutrients? They are large macromolecules that our bodies need in large amounts each day in order to function properly. The 3 macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred fuel source and should be consumed in a higher quantity than fats or protein. Examples include whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes, and most plants in general are great sources. There are many further classifications of carbohydrates which I will discuss more in the “quality” section.
Protein is another macromolecule that makes up our muscle, bone, skin, and other tissues. It has a vast array of functions from aiding in muscle growth, keeping you full, DNA replication, cell structure, and chemical reactions. It is built up of basic building blocks called amino acids, which I will discuss more in the “quality” section. Protein can be found in meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds.
The last group of macronutrients are fats. Yes! We need to have fats in our diet. Fats not only increase the satiety of your meal (keeping you full) and help you absorb fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, but also reduce the glycemic impact so that your blood sugar doesn’t spike after a meal. Sources of fats include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, oils, avocados, nuts (nut butters), and seeds. Again, I will talk about quality later.
Now that you know a bit about the 3 “macros” let’s talk about the amounts. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) is a set of recommended percentage ranges from the USDA for each macronutrient based of scientific evidence showing a protective effect on health. They are a percentage of the total calories you consume in a day so are easily adjustable per different total intake. There is a range and not a set percent for a reason. This both includes flexibility for daily diet changes and for those who may be more active needing more protein and carbohydrates etc. The key here is that you should try and stay within these ranges. Notice how you need ALL 3 GROUPS! Cutting out an entire nutrient group is not a way to achieve short- or long-term health. You can play with the ranges depending on what feels right for you and your specific lifestyle. You can get your exact percentages by imputing your daily intake in an app like MyFitnessPal or by using an online nutrition log like NutritionData.Self.Com.
While I always see people focused on the macronutrients because we need those in the highest amounts, don’t forget about our vitamins and minerals or micronutrients! These nutrients are also essential to the body and vary in both amount and source. Deficiencies can cause many diseases and developmental problems like anemia (low iron intake), poor vision (low vitamin A intake), osteoporosis/ poor bone health (low vitamin D intake), cognitive defects in babies (low iodine), poor fetal development (low folate intake), and more. Do I have your attention now? Since we cannot produce vitamins and minerals ourselves, we need to be getting them in our diets.
While each food has a different nutrient composition it is important to start learning about what foods contain which vitamins and minerals so you can see if you are missing something. Vitamins can be split into fat soluble and water-soluble groups. The water soluble should be consumed with water for optimal absorption while the fat soluble should be consumed with fat! The minerals are divided by amounts that they are needed in, hence macro being needed in higher quantities vs trace. To assess whether or not you are getting in your micronutrients you can do 2 things. The first being get blood work done. I know this may not be everyone’s favorite option, but it can show any deficiencies or low quantities. The second is to do it manually on a tracker like I mentioned previously. This will however be much less accurate as it does not take into account how much is actually getting absorbed by the body.
Here is a graphic from my book!
Click here to learn more about each of their tasks!
The next area is the quantity or amount of food you are consuming. This is also known as your caloric intake. This is important as this is one of the most common tools used for weight management. A 2,000-calorie diet is often used as a base number to make for easy math and general rules. However, this may not be right for everyone depending on their stage of life, lifestyle, health state, or weight goals. If you are pregnant or an extreme athlete, you will need much more calories than a baby or elderly person. No number of calories is right for everyone but there is a right amount/ range for you. See how to calculate your specific calorie needs in my article here. Once you determine how many calories you need at your current weight, this would be your maintenance calories- how much you would need to eat to maintain your weight at you’re your standard metabolic rate.
If you add physical activity, then that number will increase as you are burning more calories, so you need more to keep your weight. If you are looking to lose weight you will need to consume less calories than you are burning, also known as a caloric deficit. To gain weight you will need to consume more than you are burning. *I go into more depth on this topic in this article linked previously. Discovering the quantity of food that is right for you is so vital to proper weight management which can be a precursor for disease. Once again, a food tracker mentioned in my first point can help you to calculate the total number of calories you are eating. Note, I do not recommend counting calories forever, just for a few days to a week to understand how many calories are in certain foods and what it feels like to actually eat the amount that your body needs! This can help you get in touch with your hunger cues and realize if you have been over or under eating.
This is one of my favorite points to touch upon as there are no numbers here! While if you follow the above 3 tips you are on the right track to better health. But there is another factor at play known as nutrient density. This refers to the amount of nutrients per calorie in a food. Think about it like this, you could eat 100 calories of white rice vs 100 calories of brown rice. They are both the same amount of food and both a source of carbohydrates, but the brown rice has much more nutrients than the white rice (including fiber) making it more nutrient dense. This means that you will get more “bang for your buck” with those calories. Quality also refers to other factors such as overall health risks. For example, if you are looking for a protein source there are many different options. Let’s compare bacon to lentils. Bacon comes with protein and high levels of saturated fat (which is still being researched for adverse health effects) but nonetheless is a high enough amount to come from a single food source. It has also been classified by the World Health Organization as a class 1 carcinogen as it is a processed meat. That means it is known to cause cancer. While lentils are high in fiber and have heart protective properties but may provide slightly fewer grams of protein per calorie. Which protein source seems higher quality to you?
Quality also matters for fat sources as well. The Trans fat found in a bag of chips does not have the same health benefits as the fat in nuts, seeds, and avocados. The whole food sources of all macronutrients come with fiber and more nutrition per calorie than any processed version. Quality can also be in consideration for organic versus nonorganic. While non-organic produce still maintains some benefits, they may be weakened by the chemical pesticides present on the foods. This would lower the quality of the nutrient density. Eating seasonally can also have an effect in this category as foods that are grown locally and consumed when ripe have a much higher nutrient content than those that are shipped across the country and stored for long periods of time. While there is no way to eat perfect all of the time, keeping a few of these things in mind may help you improve the quality of the foods in your diet. If you have ever heard the phrase “a calorie is a calorie” referring to food choices, yes scientifically this is true, but the nutrient quality is unmatched.
I know, how can there be more to worry about! This one should be more fun than worry. Do you find yourself eating the same foods each day? If you are going to make some vegetables is it always broccoli and sweet potatoes? If you are making breakfast is it always eggs? Is your protein source always the same? If so, you might be in a food rut! I know it’s easy to fall back on those easy staples you know how to cook and enjoy, but variety is important. Eating many different foods will allow for better micronutrient intake as each food has a different composition. This will make it easier for you to hit all of the necessary nutrients our bodies need. Variety is also important in terms of gut health. Our gut is related to our brain function, immune system, digestive system, and much more than we even know at this time. But what we do know is that our gut microbiome is strengthened when we eat a variety of foods, specifically fibrous foods (aka plants)! When the fiber is consumed it is fermented in our gut to create healthy microbes that fight off immune disease. When we eat a variety, we have a very strong and healthy population in our guts. However, when we don’t eat a variety our gut gets used to the same few foods and our gut is lacking diversity. This can lead to higher susceptibility to disease. My favorite gut health resource is Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz where he discusses why variety on a plant heavy diet is key to ultimate gut health.
I hope you enjoyed these 5 tips to assess your own nutrition and use them in the future to help you achieve a healthier diet and lifestyle!