When it comes to nutrition, there is a lot of conflicting advice out there; what foods to eat, whether certain diets are better than others, a thousand ways to lose weight fast. Yet fast isn’t the best path when it comes to nutrition, sustainability is.
Your three-month transformation matters little if you’re back where you started in three-years’ time. A good and healthy nutrition plan is one you can see yourself following for the next few years, not months. While 30-day challenges and “extreme” diets might shield unbelievable results at first, the changes to your nutritional habits you make for them are, in most cases, impossible to stick with long-term.
“If you can give somebody something that’s a little bit more sustainable, where progress is a little bit slower, it actually tends to work better in the long term. The faster result isn’t always the better result when it comes to nutrition,” says Dr Mike Molloy, founder of M2 Performance Nutrition and nutrition coach to CrossFit Games athletes such as Zack George, Tasia Percevecz and Sara Sigmundsdottir.
Find out why a sustainable approach is what matters most in nutrition.
CONSIDER YOUR CONTEXT
When it comes to nutrition, you should take into account the context of your life. A specific nutritional approach or diet is a good place to start, but be aware that you can – and probably should – adapt it to your personal situation.
Consider your dieting history, stress factors and training levels. “Figure out how much time, energy and emotional energy you have to apply to your diet,” says Dr Molloy.
A serious elite athlete who wants to maximise their performance might follow a very strict nutrition plan with an exact number of carbohydrates and protein they should be hitting, whereas an athlete who wants to improve their body composition but has a lot of stress in their life might instead have a total daily calorie goal, instead of fixed amounts of macronutrients for every meal.
“Apply an increasing level of rigor based upon how much energy you have to dedicate to the process,” recommends Dr Molloy.
FEEL GOOD ABOUT WHAT YOU EAT
Food is emotional, so every person should approach their nutrition based on their historical feelings around food and how they have eaten in the past.
“People take the labels that they apply to certain foods and then they start to apply it to themselves for eating them,” says Dr Molloy. “So no longer is the ice cream bad, no longer is the doughnut bad, but I’m a bad person for having eaten that thing.”
You should feel like you have the power to make good decisions about your nutrition, and not be paralysed when faced with situations where what you eat is outside your control.
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KNOW THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ‘BAD FOOD’
Food is fuel and different food has different purposes. There is micronutrient dense, unprocessed food that’s good for our health and for our performance, and then we have flavourful, macronutrient dense foods like donuts and ice cream which can be good for emotional health – and maybe your mental health – to have every once in a while.
A sustainable nutrition plan won’t have any restrictions but will instead ensure you consume an amount that is satisfying to you, while keeping in alignment to your big picture goals.
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ALLOW FOR FLEXIBILITY
Restricting whole food groups can have big psychological consequences. Leaving aside unhealthy relationships with food for the time being, simply asking someone to completely avoid something in their diet will, in most cases, make them crave it more, especially because these are usually foods they enjoy eating.
Restricting foods (and drink) can also lead to binge eating them when you’re “allowed” to have them again. By allowing yourself to eat what you want “instead of feeling like you’ve restricted yourself emotionally for so long that that first bite or that first sip becomes an entire evening of drinking or an entire evening of eating, you’re in a more emotionally stable spot around your food to say: ‘I’m going to have what I want and I’ll stop when I’m done,’” says Dr Molloy.
“It comes down to sustainability,” he explains. “If I cut all of those things in your diet, will you make progress in the short term? Probably. But are you likely to make it work for longer than 30 or 60 days? Probably not.”
A more flexible approach allows for sustainability in a way that an ultra-strict diet does not. Instead of eliminating anything forever, you just have to apply some level of restriction and control to get yourself to a goal.
SUSTAINABILITY IS KEY TO SPORTS NUTRITION
“Extreme approaches are always destined to fail,” says Dr Molloy. “If diet isn’t sustainable long term, it’s probably never going to work for you long term.”
There are many ways to reach the same end goal. If your goal is to lose weight for example, it doesn’t matter what diet you follow, ultimately you’ll need to reach a calorie deficit.
“There are no magical unicorns involved with intermittent fasting or keto for example,” says Dr Molloy. “At the end of the day, it’s literally just calories in, calories out as it relates to generating weight loss. It’s a complicated process, but that’s what your goal is.”
Avoiding a whole macronutrient group or only eating within a certain period of time might work extremely well for some people because they are simple approaches, but ultimately your nutritional habits have to be sustainable. For a lot of people, intermittent fasting is sustainable because it’s simple. They eat their regular food, don’t count calories and don’t need any apps. The same applies for keto; it’s easy to say: if something has a lot of carbs don’t eat it.
But if you love carbs that’s a complete different story.
“Any diet that tells you, you shouldn’t have what you enjoy isn’t going to work in the long term,” says Dr Molloy. If you really enjoy the foods the diet you’re trying out is restricting, the chances of the diet working is close to none.
“Imagine you tell me: ‘Hey, I really love red wine.’ And my dietary approach for you says you can never have red wine. You’re not going to stick to that diet,” says Dr Molloy. “At the end of the day, if you enjoy something you’re going to want to have it.”
The reason you should include sustainability in your nutritional approach is to ensure it works for more than three months.
A good and sustainable nutritional approach means eating nutrient-dense food 85% of the time, allow yourself some treats so you have enjoyment in your food every now and again, sleeping enough and getting some exercise. The exact terms of how you reach these goals are down to you.
Ultimately, it boils down to learning to make choices that make you happy, whether that is in your nutrition plan, training regime or life in general.
You can find out more about Dr Mike Molloy and his methods at M2 Performance Nutrition.
All content within this article is provided for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.