“Simple, clear principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” –Dee Hock-VISA International
Early in my volleyball coaching career, I attended a clinic to help me become a better coach. One of the first questions they asked all of us coaches is “Where do you get your methods?” The responses were things like: from a class I took, from something I read, or from other coaches. For me, I had learned everything I knew about coaching volleyball from other coaches who I saw as successful. Seemed like a good place to look, right? But then they taught us something that changed the way I thought about my coaching from that point forward. A great volleyball program must be built on correct, consistent, strong, and enduring principles.
WHAT on earth does this have to do with the way I eat?? Well, my understanding of using principles to guide my methods has affected many other areas of my life, including the decisions I make in regards to food.
So, what are principles? From the dictionary, a principle is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning .” In other words, principles are truths that we can rely on to make good decisions. Included are underlying laws that guide behavior (like gravity, for example) as well as statements of what should or should not be done based on scientific facts and statistical trends.
Wow! A little wordy there! Let’s add a little simplicity from Sean Covey here: “Principles aren’t religious. They aren’t American or Chinese. They aren’t mine or yours. They aren’t up for discussion. They apply equally to everyone, rich or poor, king or peasant, male or female. They can’t be bought or sold. If you live by them, you will excel. If you break them, you will fail.” There you go. PRINCIPLES.
For me, understanding a few principles keeps me from falling for every new diet craze on the market. Understanding principles helps me to not eat a certain way just because somebody else is. (You know, that “your own version of healthy” I talked about .) Understanding principles helps me have flexibility, rather than rigidity, in my diet. And understanding principles helps me have “complex and intelligent behavior” rather than “simple and stupid behavior” in regards to what I consume.
So here they are—four PRINCIPLES that I use as my cornerstones to a foundation of sustainable, healthy eating.
PRINCIPLE #1: The body requires a constant supply of energy to move and maintain all its functions. This source of energy is calories. When more energy is consumed than is used, there is a caloric surplus. When less energy is consumed than is used, there is a caloric deficit. And when the amount consumed matches the amount used, there is balance.
While this may sound overly simplistic, it is true. There are many factors that affect how many calories are used, or burned, by the body, such as muscle mass, activity level, hormone levels, and more. Thus, the number of calories needed for weight management will be different for each person. But this principle is an important one to know if you want to give your body the right amount of fuel.
I weigh between 110-115 pounds and am pretty active, and for me to maintain my weight, I have found about 1800 calories per day (plus the amount burned during exercise) to be the right amount. I could never have learned that without keeping track and experimenting a bit, however. So rather than eating a prescribed amount of calories that doesn’t take into account your specific goals or your specific needs, use this principle to help you learn for yourself how much you should be eating.
PRINCIPLE #2: Calories come in three forms: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All three are essential for maintaining health.
If you pay attention at all to diet information and marketing, you know that the proper balance of these three macronutrients is a HOT topic! Low carb, no carb, high protein, high fat—how on earth do we know which one is right?? For highly debated topics like this one, I like to consult two sources: one that is scientifically-based (rather than based on people’s claims) and MY GUT.
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (which, by the way, is not trying to get me to buy anything from them) recommends the following balance for macronutrients for the general population:
Carbohydrates—45-65% total daily calories
Proteins—10-35% total daily calories
Fats—20-35% total daily calories
I had never kept track or paid attention to my macronutrient balance before last year, but my GUT told me that in order to be healthy, there needs to be a balanced approach to macronutrients. Something about eliminating all carbs when that was popular, or eating mostly fats, pretty popular right now, just doesn’t sit well with me. (My second source—my gut—is typically a pretty good one. Pay attention to yours!)
Once I did start keeping track of macronutrients, and trying to keep them in a healthy balance, within the recommended ranges above, I saw big improvements in my body’s ability to function well, and a change in my body composition, as I started burning more fat and increasing lean muscle mass. My macro goals for when I am focusing more on strength gains are 50% carbs, 20% proteins, 30% fats. However, when I am doing more endurance training my body needs more carbohydrates, so I shift my goals to 60% carbs, 15% proteins, 25% fats. As I get closer to my marathon, and I am running for hours each week, I will increase my carb intake even more and adjust the other macros accordingly. Tracking macronutrients can sound overwhelming, but there are many tools out there that can help if you are interested in trying. I use myfitnesspal, an app on my phone that is easy to use and has helped me learn a lot about this principle. And if tracking isn’t for you, just try to pay attention, keep a healthy balance between the three macronutrients, and avoid diet crazes that offer an unbalanced approach as the “cure all!”
PRINCIPLE #3: To maintain health, the body needs micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals. These are found in foods, and some foods provide more vitamins and minerals than others.
I like to think of this principle as “getting a lot of bang for my buck.” Basically, if I’m going to eat something, I want to get a lot of nutrients from my calories. I think this is where the fear of carbs has come from. Many foods that are high in carbohydrates are low in nutrients, commonly referred to as “empty calories.” However, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which are mainly carbohydrates, are loaded with vitamins and minerals that our bodies need! So I try to fill most of my carbohydrate goal (as well as my other macro goals) with nutrient-dense foods that keep my body thriving.
Now, when I say “most,” I really mean MOST, not ALL. As long as I am meeting my needs for vitamins and minerals pretty consistently, trying to achieve balance between my macros, and staying within my calorie goal, I believe there is a little wiggle room for some empty calories here and there. (That’s just my gut talking on that one.) Restricting foods often leaves me feeling a sense of deprivation that can lead to unhealthy choices. However, if I am eating a healthy diet, and then choose to have a cookie once in a while, I don’t have to feel guilty and then use that guilt to throw myself into a three-day binge.
PRINCIPLE #4: The final principle I use to direct my diet choices is unique to my LDS faith. We have a section of scripture referred to as the “word of wisdom,” or what we believe is God’s advice about healthy living. It is found in Doctrine and Covenants 89, and says that it is a “principle with promise.”
Basically, the word of wisdom tells us things we should refrain from as well as things we should eat to take care of our bodies. And who better than Heavenly Father, the creator of our bodies, to give this advice? The word of wisdom instructs us to eat “wholesome herbs” and “fruit in the season thereof.” It tells us to eat meat sparingly. It says that “all grain is ordained for the use of man and beasts, to be the staff of life.” Finally, it tells us to eat “that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground.”
And what is the promise that goes with this principle? “Health in their navel and marrow to their bones…wisdom and great treasures of knowledge…and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint” (v. 18-20). I have found this principle to be true, and have felt the promised blessings from following it.
I like to think of these four principles as the cornerstones of my nutritional foundation. And if they are the four corners, the walls would be four other considerations which aren’t principles, but I believe are important when creating a sustainable way to eat. Those four walls are: budget, simplicity, personal taste, and family values.
Budget—Sometimes I like to imagine how I would eat if money just simply wasn’t an issue. There would definitely be more salmon!! But the reality is, I need to try to stick to a budget when I do my grocery shopping. So certain foods, although healthy, aren’t really something I buy frequently. And yes, I eat rice and potatoes. They get a bad rap, I think. But they are really good sources of complex carbohydrates, which our bodies need, especially if you are doing any endurance training like I am.
Simplicity—Show me a recipe with 20 ingredients, and my eyes will glaze over. Especially if half of those ingredients are things I do not have in my pantry, and I don’t even know which specialty store I would have to go to to find them. I enjoy cooking, but I enjoy LOTS of things, so cooking for hours every day just isn’t in the plan for me right now. So until I am rich enough to hire a personal chef, simplicity is definitely a consideration in my diet.
Personal Taste—I love food! It just tastes so good! There are so many healthy and delicious choices out there that I don’t waste any calories on foods that don’t taste good to me. If there is a particularly healthy food that I just don’t like, I will look for another that will give me similar nutrient content, and enjoy it instead.
Family Values—Eating together as a family is important to me. Now, my kids go to school, so we don’t eat all meals together, but we do eat breakfast and dinner together. And remember that simplicity consideration? I don’t cook separate meals for me (except once in awhile for breakfast when I serve my kids something horrible that I don’t know how to modify, like donuts of something!) So whatever I fix for my family for dinner is what I eat. This is good motivation to put something nutritious on the table every night. And whatever needs I don’t meet with breakfast and dinner, I can definitely make up for with my lunch and snacks during the day. I also believe in celebrating birthdays and holidays with my family, and that wiggle room in my diet is perfect for accommodating these kinds of celebrations that typically involve food with high calories and little nutritional value.
These four “walls” of my foundation are important, but you have to be careful not to make them your cornerstones. If you do, you may end up eating Fruit Loops for breakfast, Ramen noodles for lunch, and doing something simple for dinner, like a Big Mac and a McFlurry.
So decide what your guiding principles will be (your cornerstones), think about other considerations you have (your walls), and construct a foundation that you can build your health on long-term. You can use the principles I use, or find some of your own. You don’t have to follow a bunch of rules and regulations. In fact, the opposite is true. With basic principles as my guide, I eat a wide variety of delicious foods and feel a lot of freedom, not to mention all the health benefits of a principle-based approach to eating.
What are your guiding principles? What other things do you consider when deciding what to eat? What would you like to know more about? Leave a comment below, and let’s discuss this some more. I love sharing, but I also love learning. I hope that principle-based eating will become a tool we all learn to use as we keep working at this amazing project of loving our bodies. You guys are worth it!
Love your body, and your body will love you. ♥