From North American to Nutritious
by Dr John M Berardi, CSCS
Good nutrition, nutrition for optimal body composition (fat loss, muscle gain), optimal health, and optimal performance (sports or everyday) usually requires a move away from the typical North American dietary habits and a move toward more nutritious, physiology-friendly habits.
To shed a little bit of light on what I mean by the typical North American Diet, let's consider for a moment how the average North American lives each nutritional day.
1. Our typical North American wakes up too close to when they've gotta go, leaving little time to prepare, eat, and digest a good meal before work (whether "work" is an office job or it's training for sport). Also, our typical North American complains that they're "not hungry" in the morning.2. Our typical North American opts for scarfing down a quick, fast digesting breakfast that's low in calories, missing a significant protein portion, low in micronutrients and phytochemicals, low in good fats, and rich in processed, high glycemic index carbohydrates.3. Our typical North American heads to work relatively poorly fed.4. Our typical North American is fairly inconsistent with his/her mid-morning snacks. Also, "snack" usually means more processed carbs and sugar without much in the way of fruits and veggies, quality protein, or good fats.5. Our typical North American, during his/her lunch break, opts for a small amount of protein (a couple of slices of lunch meat and cheese) between a few slices of processed bread. So again, we're stuck with low protein, low fruit and veggie intake, and very little good fats.6. Our typical North American is fairly inconsistent with his/her mid-afternoon snacks. Also, "snack" usually means more processed carbs and sugar without much in the way of fruits and veggies, quality protein, or good fats.7. Assuming dinner is eaten at home, after work, our typical North American has a decent, nutritionally balanced dinner with a good protein source, good carbohydrates, their first larger fruit and veggie portion of the day, and perhaps even some good fats if they've included olive oil or other sources of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.8. After their evening activities, our typical North American is inconsistent with their pre-bed snacks. These snacks, if they do eat them, usually are the worst of the day, consisting of larger servings of sweets or processed foods.
So, what’s wrong with this type of intake?
1. Breakfast has been shown to be a critical daily meal. After a catabolic overnight fast, a balanced breakfast helps to regulate blood sugar, helps to regulate energy balance, and helps to control late-day cravings that lead to overfeeding on processed, high fat, and high sugar foods. In both cases above, breakfast is either a very small feeding or is completely non-existent. This needs to change.2. The bulk of total dietary energy is distributed later in the day. What this means is that hourly energy balance is hugely negative in the morning, and positive in the evening.
Studies at Georgia State University demonstrate that hourly energy balance is at least as important as total daily energy balance and should remain as close to neutral as possible throughout each of the 24 hours. This means a better distribution of calories throughout the entire day – not just loading up on a big dinner.3. In the case of our example above, by lunch our individual is likely underfed in total and often underfed in protein. As discussed above, energy intake needs to be better distributed through the day.4. Fruit and veggie intake, as well as protein intake, is very low until dinnertime. Just as total calorie distribution should be spread evenly throughout the day, so should macronutrient (protein, carb, fat) and micronutrient intake.5. With blood amino acid concentrations low from the overnight fast and continually low throughout the early day (especially if the morning has two training sessions), catabolic conditions will predominate in the body, making recovery from and adaptation to exercise difficult without a higher morning and early afternoon protein intake.6. Throughout the morning and afternoon, vitamin and mineral intake as well as dietary antioxidant intake is quite low, creating a deficit that'll be hard to make up later in the day.A fair number of athletes and recreational exercisers have been shown to be deficient in a host of vitamins and minerals, leading to impairments in nervous system function, metabolic processing, and oxygen delivery/consumption. It's hard to get the requisite amount of vitamins and minerals in only one or two meals. Now, this doesn't mean that folks should start popping multi-vitamins. It means they need to get more fruits and vegetables as well as other micronutrient dense foods with every feeding, not just with one or two feedings per day.7. Many individuals who don't actively pay attention to their protein intake tend to get too little protein for optimal recovery, preservation of lean body mass, and for the metabolic advantages associated with higher protein intake. Even many of the athletes I regularly work with would benefit from a higher protein intake.
Now, this doesn't mean at the expense of good carbs and good fats. It's in addition to those things. Most folks are getting a good, high protein dinner, but it's difficult to take in enough total protein in only one or two protein rich meals. (Nor is it advisable.)
8. For both the physically active and even the sedentary individuals discussed above, dietary fat intake is usually out of balance in favor of saturated fat. Without actively choosing foods and supplements that contain mono and polyunsaturated fatty acid, fat balance is unfavorable. In our example above, our typical North American isn’t getting enough good fats.
9. With most of the meals above being rich in simple, processed carbs, the hormone insulin isn't well-controlled. This means that individuals predisposed to fat gain will have a more difficult time controlling and/or losing body fat, even with higher training volumes.
10. With most of the meals above being rich in simple, low-fiber carbs, not enough dietary fiber is being ingested. This may mean constipation, poor blood sugar regulation, and poor GI health.
11. Our individual above isn't actively taking advantage of the post-exercise improvement in insulin sensitivity and boost in post-exercise protein synthesis by eating carb and amino acid-rich foods right after exercise (assuming they have exercised).
With all of these dietary limitations, it should be clear that although these individuals aren't dying of malnutrition, they're certainly not laying the groundwork for great body composition, health and performance. So let's talk about how to transition from the average diet to a nutritious one.
Step 1: Improve Workout and Post-Workout NutritionStep 2: Improving and Scheduling Breakfast MealsStep 3: Adding good fatsStep 4: Improving lunch mealsStep 5: Improving dinner mealsStep 6: Increasing veggie (and fruit) intakeStep 7: Improve snacks.
Hopefully the message of this article has become clear. Whether you're a high level competitive athlete or just a recreational exerciser, eating like the typical North American is bad, bad news. And despite your exercise habits, eating this way might have you ending up looking more like the typical North American than you want.
To avoid making the same mistakes other North Americans make, it's important that you view each meal or snack as an opportunity to get a good balance of nutrition. This means making sure each meal has a good protein source, a good fat source, and a good amount of fruits and veggies.