Nutrition Pyramid : What is it and why should we pay attention to it?
The Nutrition Pyramid was published and made famous by Eric Helms, a highly respected source of knowledge and research within the fitness industry. There is in fact a full e-book explaining each level of the pyramid in much more detail than I am going to do here. This is the link if you are interested in learning more!
The book was written to give ‘a set of guidelines, principles, and theories to create a framework for athletes.’
I personally think it is the best visual to show that you should concentrate on the bigger picture as opposed to the small minutia.
You need to get your big rocks in place first, before worrying about the smaller ones.
#1 On the bottom level of the nutrition pyramid you have ‘CALORIES.’
Whatever your goal, calories matter. Whether you are trying to lose fat or gain weight, you really do need to get some sort of handle on how many calories you are consuming on a day to day basis. No, this doesn’t mean that you have to use myfitnesspal for the rest of your life, but I do recommend that the majority of people should spend some period of time accurately tracking what they are eating.
Once you are able to see what you are consuming, it is then a lot easier to make changes as opposed to just having a bit of a stab in the dark! If you are maintaining your weight on 2000 per day but want to decrease your body fat, then you know to maybe decrease this to 1800 and see how you get on. Conversely, if you want to put on some muscle, then you need to get into a calorie surplus and maybe shoot for 2200 calories.
Calories are the most important metric for the high majority of people in terms of body composition.
#2 The next stage up of the nutrition pyramid is ‘MACRONUTRIENTS.’
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are what all food is made up of: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat.
There is no optimal ratio of these, some people function better with a higher carbohydrate diet, whereas some will prefer a higher fat diet.
You may need to experiment in order to see what works best for you. How does it effect your mood, your energy levels, your output at the gym, your hunger levels? There are many metrics to measure this by and you will only find out what works best for you by experimenting.
#3 After macronutrients you should concentrate on your ‘MICRONUTRIENTS.’
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals which are in our foods and we need in trace amounts in order to function optimally.
We all know that when we eat more fruit and vegetables we feel a lot better. So even though we may be able to meet our calorie and macronutrient needs with ‘junk foods’, we should all be aiming to eat more fruit and vegetables.
I usually advise clients to aim for 5-8 portions of vegetables per day and 1-3 portions of fruit. A wide variety of different colours is optimal in order to cover all bases in terms of the different vitamins and minerals which they contain. Plenty of dark leafy veg is always great.
#4 Next up the nutrition pyramid is ‘MEAL TIMING.’
This is towards the top of the pyramid for a reason. Until you have the previous layers in check, when you eat your meals is not going to have too much of an effect!
Should you eat carbs in the morning or evening? Should you eat breakfast? What time should you have snacks? Can I eat carbs after 6pm?
These are all questions which I hear on a regular basis as a Personal Trainer and they are all perfectly valid ones. The problem is that they usually come before the more important questions as mentioned previously.
There are 3 parts to this section as discussed by Eric Helms.
> how should you distribute your calories and meals over the course of your diet?
> how many meals should you consume per day?
> what is the best peri-workout nutrition strategy?
Some people can go Monday through Friday following their nutrition plan perfectly, yet when it comes to the weekend it can all go out the window. In this instance they would be best spreading their calories out over the week. Eg if this person knows that they need to eat 2000 calories per day in order to lose weight, what they could do is eat 1800 Monday to Friday, and use the extra 1000 calories over the weekend when they know they maybe will want to eat more.
Diet breaks or reseed days can also work for people who are dieting for long periods of time (3 months or more) or if they are already at low body fat levels (<15% for males and <22% females). These are structured periods of time when calories are increased, usually through carbohydrates. Helms recommends an increase of around 500 calories, but this will depend on you and is not a strict figure. This is done to help mentally, but also to upregulate certain hormones which may have down regulated during the diet process.
How many meals per day is best? This depends on you and your goals. 3-5 is my usual recommendation and is one which i have found works for myself but also clients. If in a fat loss phase, the key here is to keep extreme hunger away whilst working within your lifestyle. Some people may prefer less meals, some may prefer more.
Peri workout nutrition is an area with a lot of research but no definitive results! It can now be said with some certainty that the post workout window is bigger than we have been led to believe, ie you have about 1-2 hours to get in a meal, you don’t have to immediately pour yourself a protein as soon as you drop the last weight! Pre workout will depend on you, some people need to eat before hand, whereas some don’t; find what works for you! I see so many people sipping on Lucazades during their working when quite frankly the smallest percentage of people really need one. You should have enough fuel in the tank from previous meals or body fat to workout. Unless you are doing an intense 2 hour workout including some form of HIIT cardio, it is highly unlikely that you will need any form or intra workout.
#5 The highest level of the pyramid is given to ‘SUPPLEMENTS.’
These are exactly that, a supplement to your diet.
Supplements should only be used to plug any gaps which you have in your nutrition. I usually recommend a multi-vitamin, vitamin D and Omega 3 fish oil, as I tend to find that these are lacking in the majority of people’s diets. However, they are still just a supplement, you should be trying to get them from food first.
Do you need supplements? No.
If you do want to start taking supplements, make sure you do extensive research beforehand. The best website which I have found for information is www.examine.com.
There is something else in addition to the levels of the nutrition pyramid which also need to be considered and is something which I have spoken about a lot, not just in this article. ‘BEHAVIOUR AND LIFESTYLE.’
‘THE BEST DIET IS THE ONE WHICH FITS YOUR LIFESTYLE AND YOU CAN ADHERE TO.’
Behaviour and lifestyle, in a practical sense, is probably the most important subject in terms of the nutrition pyramid. You can have a lot of theory and knowledge, but not get to where you want to go if you are unable to apply it and make it work for you and your lifestyle.
A few key things to think about in regards to behaviour and lifestyle:
>It is unlikely that you will hit upon something which works for you straight away, if you do you will be in the small minority! It will likely need a little bit of experimentation and tweaking as you go.
>You will need to have some method of tracking to see if what you are doing is actually working. This can be done through scale weight, body measurements and/or photos. You will need to track calories for a while and this may mean investing in a food scale so you can accurately measure what you are consuming. Don’t just estimate if you are new to tracking, you will be surprised at how far off you may be with certain foods.
Accuracy, Flexibility and Consistency
> Chances are you will not have to be 100% accurate 24/7 in order to get the results you want, in fact this would almost be impossible. The extent to which you implement these three things will have a huge effect on length of time it takes you to get to the desired results though. A balance of these three things is what we are really after. Accurate enough that you are able to be consistent, yet flexible enough not to damage your consistency.
>Don’t underestimate the support and help of your family and friends. It will be really important to help keep you on track if everyone knows how important your goals are and can help you get to them, as opposed to sabotaging you at every corner! Key to this is communication.
> You want to be aiming for an inclusive diet as opposed to an exclusive one. Get out of the habit of thinking that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. You should be able to follow a moderate approach in order to reach your goals so as not to develop a bad and damaging relationship with food. There are no ‘bad’ foods which are harmful to you but there are foods which are better for you, and foods which just contain empty calories.
> You can reach your health and fitness goals whilst still consuming calories. You just need to realise that alcohol does contain calories and as such must be accounted for. A glass of wine on a weekend is not going to be that damaging, but a big binge every Saturday night will probably not be the best! (Here is a blog post I did on best alcohol options! )
> Have an open mindset. There is no one correct way of doing things. Do your own research, ask questions before having an opinion.
That wraps up my breakdown of the nutrition pyramid. I know that there is a lot of information to digest in this piece, so don’t get overwhelmed! Go back through and read each section thoroughly. Send me any questions which you may have and I will do my best to answer them for you!
Love Abi xxxx