“Good nutrition” is different for everyone. If you asked a hundred different people what good or healthy eating means, you’ll likely get a hundred different answers…
For some, it’s eating like a caveman. For others, it’s eating no meat and lots of veggies. While for others still, it’s just eating a little bit less dessert and drinking more moderate amounts of alcohol.
Apart from there being differences in actual belief of what is good nutrition, there are also differences in how far various people are willing to go to achieve good health.
- Some absolutely love chasing optimal health and are willing to do just about anything to achieve it – even if it means growing their own food from scratch, never eating a gram of added sugar again, and spending countless hours in the gym.
- Others, on the other hand, want to do as little as possible to just be a little bit healthier than they are now – for them being healthy is seen as an inconvenience or annoyance and they are looking for the shortcuts.
Neither is right or wrong and it is completely up to you to decide how big a part of your life you want a healthy lifestyle should be.
Most people will lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: They are willing to put in the time and effort to live healthier as long as it’s simple, reasonable and easy to do.
At Sleekgeek we work with 5 specific criteria (based on Precision Nutrition’s teachings) to help us define good nutrition:
- Good nutrition provides nutrient density.
- Good nutrition controls energy balance.
- Good nutrition achieves health, body composition, and performance goals.
- Good nutrition is honest and outcome-based.
- Good nutrition is sustainable.
Whether you Intermittent Fast on a Vegetarian Raw-Food diet while Counting Calories or eat whatever the heck you want and just try to cut down on the sugar while eating a few more servings of veggies, you can apply these 5 criteria of good nutrition to help you with your goals.
Let’s dive in a bit deeper!
A word of warning: This is quite a long post with a lot to digest, but at the bottom of each section you will find a “bottom line” that summarises the outcome of that section.
1. Good Nutrition Provides Nutrient Density:
When it comes to good nutrition, we look at food in two different ways: 1) Nutrient Density and 2) Calorie Density.
- Nutrient Density is the ratio of nutrients (like vitamins, minerals, fibre, etc) relative to the calorie (energy) content in a food. A food with high nutrient density would be rich in key nutrients per 100 calories of food. A food with a low nutrient density would contain very few nutrients per 100 calories of food.
- Calorie Density is the ratio of calories (which are units of potential energy stored in food) to the weight of a food. A food with a high-calorie density would contain a high amount of calories (energy) per 100 grams of food. A food with a low-calorie density would contain very few calories (energy) per 100 grams of food.
The Best Combination:
- The best combination (for most people) for improving health and promoting fat loss is a diet that is higher in nutrient-dense foods and lower in calorie-dense foods.
The reason we use the words “higher” and “lower” in the above recommendation is that your diet does not necessarily need to be ONLY high nutrient-dense foods and low-calorie foods. This is because there are many foods that are considered healthy which lie somewhere in between, such as fatty fish, eggs, nuts, potatoes, and so on. These tend to be both nutrient dense and calorie dense.
Of course, you may also wish to indulge in less nutritious foods from time to time that contains few nutrients and quite a high amount of calories, which is why it’s important to implement moderation and self-control when it comes to these foods. We suggest eating nutrient-dense unprocessed or minimally processed foods 90% of the time, giving yourself 10% flexibility to enjoy some of your favourite foods or adapt to less than ideal real-life situations.
Overall, a more nutrient-dense, lower-calorie kind of diet will:
- Be rich in essential nutrients and reduce your risk for deficiencies, help you more easily control calories (without even needing to count them), improve your satiety after meals so that you feel more satisfied / stay fuller for longer, and give you better overall health, body composition, and performance.
If you want to learn more about this style of eating, take a look at:
- Sleekgeek’s Re-Defined “Superfoods” (every-day nutrient-dense foods, not expensive hyped-up berries).
- The Only One Bad Meal Rule (a great strategy to you stay within that 10% flexibility and avoid “falling off the wagon”).
|Nutrient Density Bottom Line: Eat more nutrient-dense unprocessed or minimally processed foods 90% of the time, giving yourself 10% flexibility to enjoy some of your favourite foods or adapt to less than ideal real-life situations.|
2. Good Nutrition Controls Energy Balance:
Energy balance is about managing the relationship between the amount of energy (calories from food) that we consume and expend. This relationship helps to determine whether weight is lost, gained, or remains the same.
However, in the context of the real world, we need to:
- Take into account the metabolic, hormonal, and neurochemical impact of food as that can change the outcome of those calories on our health, body composition, and performance goals.
- Acknowledge that it can be quite challenging to accurately judge how many calories we consume and equally (if not more) difficult to estimate how many calories we use up.
This doesn’t mean that counting calories and energy balance is meaningless, but it does mean that sometimes it is more complicated than simple math.
Energy balance is important because it has a lot to do with what is going on within your body at a cellular level:
- While the most commonly known effects of a positive or negative energy balance is gaining or losing weight respectively, it also affects things like our cognitive performance, metabolism, testosterone levels, reproductive function, and so on.
- This is why you ideally want to avoid excessive swings in positive or negative energy balances (such as starving yourself to try and lose weight only to give in and binge a few days later).
Eating foods that help you control your energy balance is important. For example:
- Some people have foods that they always overeat and struggle to apply moderation. Common culprits include nuts, fruit, dairy, and bread products. All of these can be part of a healthy, well-balanced and moderated diet – but if they make it difficult for you to control your energy balance then they probably aren’t the best foods for you to eat on a daily basis (or even keep in the house at all).
- Some people have foods that fill them up and keep them satisfied for hours. For some, this is something high in protein and fat like eggs while for others it’s something high in complex carbs like rolled oats or quinoa. Keeping a food journal and rating how you feel after eating can help you identify foods like these that help you control your energy balance.
- Some people have foods that they struggle to eat a lot of. Such as vegetables or fish or enough quality protein in general. So on days where you feel absolutely ravenous and nothing seems to satiate you, these should be your go-to foods to take advantage of when you are hungry and also help you determine if you truly are hungry or just craving something specific.
Once you have identified your own versions of the above examples, you can create rules and systems to help keep you on track. Like yoghurt only on weekends, or only 1 slice of whole grain / rye bread along with a healthy protein-dense meal, or eat a carrot and drink a glass of water when really hungry before going back for seconds / snacking between meals.
I’m sure you will be relieved to hear that calorie counting is not the only way to control energy balance and that we think there is more to life than doing mathematics every time you want to eat a meal!
Understanding how to count calories, and being aware of roughly how many calories are in your food or how many calories you expend while exercising can be a real eye-opening exercise that can teach you valuable lessons to use for the rest of your life. However, unless you are a professional athlete, figure model, or competitive bodybuilder then it’s not likely something that you need to do to live a healthy life.
That’s why we like Precision Nutrition’s incredibly simple method of managing your calorie intake and portion control that you can use every single day with little effort and works like a charm. It lets you greatly simplify portion sizes by using your fist, palm, cupped hand, and thumb. This works out quite well as most people bring their hand with them wherever they go, making it a pretty useful measuring tool.
Here are a few other ways to control energy balance:
- Food journaling (write it down or just snap a quick photo).
- Eating more protein and fibrous vegetables (Tip: Try eating some kind of protein-dense food and veggies with every meal).
- Eating more nutrient-dense foods (that are generally less calorie-dense).
A good nutrition program (regardless of your diet) will help to properly control energy balance. It will ideally also prevent excessive swings in energy balance in either direction (unless it is part of a structured Intermittent Fasting protocol) so the body can either lose fat or gain lean mass in a healthy way and sustainable way.
|Energy Balance Bottom Line: Most people don’t need to count calories in order to live a healthy life, but if you are struggling with weight gain or weight loss then it’s a good idea to implement some kind of system to help with portion control, hunger management, and calorie balance.|
3. Good Nutrition Achieves Health, Body Composition, and Performance Goals:
Good nutrition is more than just about weight loss or gain. Those are transient (short-term) indicators of energy balance since energy balance and weight can change from one day to the next due to many different factors.
It’s common for someone to focus far too much on ONLY losing weight, or ONLY improving their health, or ONLY improving their performance, that 1-2 of the other areas suffer as a result.
If you focus too much on only weight loss or body composition, you may find yourself:
- Eating food with disregard for how it affects your health or performance. Many low-calorie foods that aid in weight loss lack nutrients or contain unhealthy ingredients that detract from our health. Sugar, for example, is a common substitute for healthier complex carbohydrates or fats in many lower-calorie food choices.
- Eating a very low-calorie diet that can negatively affect your performance both cognitively and physically. Concentration decreases, metabolism slows down, sex drive becomes a distant memory, energy levels dip, and so on.
If you focus too much on your health (sounds impossible, but it’s not), you may find yourself:
- Completely ignoring calories in favour of chasing nutrient-dense, calorie-dense foods.
- Picking out one or two “indicators” of health that make the most sense or are the most apparent to you, but ignore others (blood lipids, body fat, lean muscle mass, resting heart rate, emotional stability, strength, financial stability, social wellbeing, etc).
If you focus too much on performance, you may find yourself:
- Eating food with disregard for how it affects your health (much like with weight loss). Nutrient-density becomes less important as you work hard to get in enough calories and carbohydrates to fuel your performance.
- Eating a very high-calorie diet also has negative effects. Your cellular fitness tends to suffer. Plaques can build up in our arteries, blood pressure and cholesterol can increase, you become more insulin resistant, your risk for certain cancers increase, and so on.
Therefore, finding a long-term set of dietary habits should be based on the intersection of the following three goals:
- Improved body composition.
- Improved health.
- Improved performance.
This way you can look great naked, live long and vitally enough to enjoy it, and perform well both cognitively and physically at anything you do – allowing you to live a bigger and fuller life.
|Health, Body Composition, and Performance Goals Bottom Line: Don’t fall into the trap of focusing too much only on weight loss, or only on health, or only on performance and let the other areas suffer as a result. Find ways to build daily habits around all three (such as eating good food, not eating too little or too much, and paying attention to how you perform cognitively and physically as a result).|
4. Good Nutrition is Honest and Outcome-Based:
Two of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to achieve their health, body composition, and performance goals are:
- They think it will be harder than it actually is – in reality, it’s actually pretty easy with the right approach.
- They think it will be quicker than it actually is – in reality, there will be times where results come quickly and times when they come agonizingly slowly.
People who make these two mistakes tend to also make as many big changes as possible while full of motivation, but then crash and burn once life becomes a bit more difficult or results come slower than they thought it would.
You may think that jumping in and giving it your all is what works best for you, and we admire that. But how’s that actually working for you?
Yes, some people do feel like they are more comfortable with cold-turkey approaches versus slow and steady approaches – but this often has to do with personality and going off what they have done most of their life (whether it has actually worked or not – it’s familiar and comfortable).
Our own biases make it hard to consider this kind of thing when it comes to ourselves, so let’s use someone else (anyone else) as an example instead…
How often have you heard:
- “I eat really well”… but… “I’m still 10 kgs overweight.”
- “My diet is perfect”… but… “I often feel sluggish and fatigued.”
- “I make good nutritional choices”… but… “I’ve got high blood pressure, cholesterol, and Type 2 Diabetes.”
Is it possible that someone could eat really well and have a “perfect” diet yet be overweight, fatigued, and riddled with lifestyle-related diseases? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not likely.
They may still be a work-in-progress and a great diet can only improve your health so fast (one good meal won’t make you healthy) – but if not much has changed for the better over the past few months or years then it might be worth re-looking just how well their diet is actually working.
Most people who believe they’re “doing a good job” but who don’t have the physique or the health profile to show for it, simply aren’t. Either they have a good plan that they’re not executing properly (consistently for an extended period of time), or their plan isn’t very good.
This is why it’s important to track both compliance and progress:
- Most people only track results (or lack thereof) and then look back at their plan wondering what went wrong.
- When looking back, we have a tendency to overestimate the good things we did (like eating so well during the work week) and underestimate the bad things we did (like going a bit wild on the weekend).
- The result is that we believe we are doing things really well even if we aren’t, and most people’s lack of desire to actually track their habits is a form of denial and self-protection.
Research was done on the discrepancy between self-reported and actual calorie intake (meaning researchers asked participants to recall what they had eaten, and then compared it to what they had actually eaten). What the researchers found was that regardless of their good intentions to be honest and accurate, subjects across every age group reported their food intake rather incorrectly. This is not because they were wanting to lie or cheat. They didn’t do it intentionally at all. It’s simply a fact that our perception for this kind of recall and reporting isn’t as good as we like to think it is.
In the study, men and women of all ages ate:
- More grains, fats, oils, and sweets than they remembered eating.
- Fewer fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk than they remembered eating.
This means they ate more carbohydrate-dense and high-calorie foods, and less nutrient-dense, fibrous, and lower-calorie foods than they thought they were eating.
When judging the effectiveness of a plan it is important to:
- Be completely honest about sticking to the plan (both to yourself and to those trying to help you, such as us or a trainer / nutritionist).
- Examine the actual results of the plan to determine whether it is actually helping you achieve your (realistic) goals or not.
- Decide based on the effort and compliance put in versus the results whether to keep going or to make changes.
This is why we ask you to take small and calculated actions, track how often you do them, and then stick with them long enough for change to occur and for your habits to become ingrained.
This is called practice.
This is the definition of outcome-based:
- You evaluate the “goodness” of a plan by observing what happens when you follow it.
|Honest and Outcome-Based Bottom Line: You shouldn’t believe you’re doing a good job based on what you’re read in the papers or in magazines or based on what you think you have been doing. You should judge your plan based on the actual actions you take and the results that it produces.|
5. Good Nutrition is Sustainable:
This has ended up being quite a long post, my apologies for that and huge respect to you if you are still with me here at the end!
Quite simply, good nutrition is sustainable for:
- Us (as in it’s realistic and doable over an extended period of time, and all hell doesn’t break lose as soon as a small speed bump appears).
- The environment (Life supports that which supports life – meaning if we don’t take responsibility for and care about the state of our planet and resources, then eventually there won’t be anything left to take responsibility for and care about).
For more about personal sustainability and building healthy habits, see:
As for the environment, I have a personal philosophy in life that is part of the reason I’m so passionate about helping people via Sleekgeek and it goes like this: “You can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” I believe a similar approach can be taken when it comes to the nutritional choices we make and how it impacts our environment.
No one single person will be able to solve our natural resource scarcity (except maybe Elon Musk – that guy is pretty amazing) but we can all definitely take small actions that over time and when done together can have a notable impact.
Some small, doable actions for better environmental sustainability include:
- Educate yourself about things like the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative.
|Bottom Line: The most successful diet for you is the one that you can stick to. The best diet in the world is useless if you can’t stay on it long enough to achieve long-term sustainable results. Environmental sustainability doesn’t need to mean giving up meat, growing your own food, and living off the grid – there are many small, actionable steps that you can take that will add up over time.|
The goal of this article was to identify key criteria for defining good nutrition, regardless of what kind of diet or approach you choose to take. Whether you want to follow Paleo, Banting, Vegetarian, IIFYM, and so on – you can still apply these 5 principles to help keep you on track.
- Eat more nutrient-dense unprocessed or minimally processed foods 90% of the time, giving yourself 10% flexibility to enjoy some of your favourite foods or adapt to less than ideal real-life situations.
- Most people don’t need to count calories in order to live a healthy life, but if you are struggling with weight gain or weight loss then it’s a good idea to implement some kind of system to help with portion control, hunger management, and calorie balance.
- Don’t fall into the trap of focusing too much only on weight loss, or only on health, or only on performance and let the other areas suffer as a result.
- You shouldn’t believe you’re doing a good job based on what you’re read in the papers or in magazines or based on what you think you have been doing. You should judge your plan based on the actual actions you take and the results that it produces.
- The most successful diet for you is the one that you can stick to, and everyone can do at least something for the planet.