Nutrition and the Real World

“Diet” (see glossary) influences body condition and composition even more than exercise, accounting for as much as 75 to 80% of physical results. Interestingly, personal trainers are limited in what they are supposed to discuss about food and supplements. We are encouraged to promote sensible, healthy eating, but anyone with special needs resulting from medication, illness, abnormal hormone profiles or other relevant medical conditions, allergies, etc. should consult a Registered Dietitian (RD, see glossary) or other licensed professional.

Eating right requires planning, discipline, and effort on top of already busy schedules. It is challenging at any time of year, and can be particularly difficult during the holidays (which account for about two months per year, every year, in the United States).

The food we live on and celebrate connects us with our cultures. The smell and taste of particular foods trigger personal memories. Eating is more than sustenance; it’s also deeply social. Human beings break bread together, and that’s not a bad thing.

Most cultures have holidays or seasons of feasting, and I think that deserves respect. If our celebrations make us feel bad, we’re doing something wrong. I would like to help people aim for participating in their traditions without harming themselves by going overboard.

I wrote this article in December 2012, and I hope to update it as time allows. It is intended to be a general guide for healthy eating and does not address the (relatively minor) modifications that some athletes might require. I did not intend to emphasize weight loss, but I noticed that my efforts to address the most common dietary mistakes have made the information here particularly useful for individuals interested in weight management.


Know the basics.

I take no responsibility for the ever-changing content of websites I do not control. and are good places to start looking for accurate information.

Energy balance

If you eat more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. If you eat less than you expend, you will lose weight. While that is technically accurate, you should also know that both of these can be affected by what and how often you eat.

Rules of thumb

The following recommendations are approximate. They are loosely based off of the MyPyramid and/or DASH (see glossary) systems. Please note that even experts do not always agree on guidelines or approaches. Everybody is different, so you might have to see how your body reacts and adjust accordingly. I strongly recommend that you begin here but continue your own research, and do not hesitate to ask a professional if you have any questions or special needs.

Following that final recommendation will help you feel more full on fewer calories, increase your consumption of vital nutrients and fiber, and displace unhealthy snacks; however, many people find that to be the most challenging to follow. It helps to have at least one serving at breakfast and another at lunch. Fresh, raw, organic produce is ideal, but if the expense and effort of that ideal are prohibitive, it isn’t going to happen. Frozen, minimally-reheated vegetables are the next best thing, and I find they are more sustainable because they take much less effort.

Pre-washed, pre-cut, raw vegetables in single-serving packages are readily available in grocery stores and many delis in business districts. Although vegetables are more expensive when purchased this way, they work in a pinch, and they are a much better choice than other salty, fatty convenience-food options.

It seems pretty well established that excessive consumption of alcohol and caffeine are unhealthy. There are conflicting studies on the effects of modest consumption of caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. I am not interested in taking sides here, and I am not going to get between anyone and their coffee.

Record your intake honestly.

Food is a loaded topic at any time of year. It is associated with comfort and reward, and at the same time is peppered with taboos. This contributes to the tendancy to underreport portion size, fat, sodium, and other things people think of as “bad”.

Your body accepts and processes exactly what it’s fed, without bias and without judgment. Food journals are only as useful as they are accurate, so it might help to remember that you are recording the information on behalf of your body.

Begin at the beginning.

If you want to change your eating patterns, start at the meal where you have the most control over your timing and environment. For most people, that means breakfast. Whole-grain cereal with skim milk and a piece of fruit is fast and easy, and works well for most people. If you prefer something lighter, consider preparing a vegetable salad, with or without a whole-grain component, the night before. Salad for breakfast might sound odd, but it is common in other parts of the world, and it is a reliable way to add a vegetable serving to your diet.

Eating breakfast is generally good because it reduces the tendancy to snack later in the morning or overeat at lunch.

And when you get to the end, stop.

Eat slowly. It makes a difference. Stop eating when you feel full. Overeating is even more wasteful than throwing away uneaten food.

Know yourself.

Your relationship with food is personal. Like any other relationship, it should be healthy, fulfilling, and balanced with your health and your life. If it is dysfunctional, work to make it better, but do not expect it to change overnight.

Try not to be discouraged by setbacks. Changing eating patterns takes time, and if you can learn from momentary failures, they can provide you with valuable information for your lasting success.

For example, some people do well on a plan that includes and accounts for discretionary calories, meals, or snacks because it gives them flexibility and freedom for social events while keeping to their plan. Other people prefer more structure. Similarly, some people find that tastes of their forbidden favorites keep them from feeling deprived, while other people find that this only triggers cravings.

If you just weren’t trying that day, don’t blame the strategy. But if you are honest and persistent and find yourself repeatedly failing with one strategy, it might be time to try another.

No path is going to be particularly easy, but there is no reason to make things harder than they need to be.

Be careful with suplements.

Your body cannot use extra vitamins, and it has to work to expel them. Some nutrients (especially some fat-soluble vitamins) can build up in the body to toxic levels. Please note: Fortified foods are a less obvious form of supplementation, but they do provide vitamins and minerals beyond what naturally occur in their food ingredients. Deficiencies in a first-world country (in people who do not consume a wacky diet) are very rare.

In theory, a well-balanced diet will give you all the nutrients you need (with the possible exceptions of calcium and iron). If you choose to take supplements, don’t chronically exceed 100% of the US RDA for any nutrient, and make sure you discuss it with your physician.

Research on nutrition and supplementation is constantly changing. Studies will be inconclusive, and opinions will conflict. Personally, I am content to let them practice on someone else.



When I was a kid, we spent much longer playing with our Halloween candy than we did eating it. It wasn’t just a snack, it was bragging rights. As an adult, I love passing candy to the little ghosties. Their amazement is not to be missed, and I wouldn't dream of wrecking it for them by rewarding their efforts in invalid currency, such as oranges. Trick-or-treating is not about me or my personal health goals. It’s for them.

Leave leftover candy on the porch after 10pm and it should be gone by morning. This is an outstanding use for other people’s teenagers, and it might even save you a prank. It's a little less tempting if you keep in mind that it isn’t fair to keep bags of candy you didn’t earn. If you do, you’re dissing the candy, and we can’t have *that*.


Thanksgiving, which is in our face by November 1, sets the tone with a celebration of abundance. This is an important part of our heritage which deserves respect, but it is not conducive to moderation.

Don’t fight the tide. Rather than attempting to reduce your consumption, try adding a substantial healthy snack to your routine. Vegetables with lean protein and/or whole grain works well for most people. Try aiming for about 300 calories and include something with high water content (such as an apple or tomato) if you want to feel full.

The reality of the year-end season is that your schedule will not be your own. You will be held late at work, and they will cater. There will be events interrupting normal meals, and the available foods will be rich. An afternoon snack will protect you from being too hungry when the chips are down (as it were), and no matter what else the evening does to you, you've had that vegetable.

And so on...

Plan ahead for those times you won’t plan ahead, because there may be times when your afternoon snack is not enough. You will more than likely be stuck in long lines in shopping centers or waiting in airports, and the food available will not be the best. As a rule, I can’t recommend fast food, but it pays to know in advance which are the lesser evils. The good news is that many of these places have responded to consumer demand and offer some healthier options. Check online for the latest articles and reviews.