As a dietitian, I get asked a lot of questions about nutrients; how much protein do I need? Am I eating too much sugar? What about fat?
Well, there are guidelines for this that act as a starting point, these are called Reference Intakes (RIs). There are protein reference intakes, sugar reference intakes and even fat references intakes, but it’s easier to think of these as a ‘daily nutritional intake’, you may have seen them on the sides of labels as a traffic light system ‘red, amber and green’. They are designed to help people make better choices about food.
These RIs have been set as part of the dietary nutritional guidelines from the Department of Health. Essentially, eating around this daily nutritional intake is a starting point to maintain your health. Most people I speak to tend to focus on calories and forget about nutrients.
However, just focusing on calories won’t get you to your goals in the quickest time and might even leave you quite unhealthy in the long run.
Why are calories not the full picture?
Don’t get me wrong, calories do count but not all calories are created equal. Choosing foods that are, for instance, equivalent calories but one is very high in sugar is not going to be a healthy choice. It is much more effective to ensuring that those ‘macronutrients’ fall into place and that will help you meet your health, fitness, weight loss and muscle building goals faster.
The best way, is to taper your nutrients to suit your goals, but what do I mean by tapering nutrition?
Tapering is something quite familiar to those who compete in endurance events, such as triathlon. Effectively, an athlete adjusts their macronutrients, upwards, kept the same or downwards to improve their training, change their body composition or even just before the event itself to get an edge.
It’s a simple but highly effective strategy and doesn’t involve counting, every last calorie.
Let’s look at some examples, perhaps you fall into one of these categories?
‘The beginner’ - in this example, this person is just starting out with exercise, aiming for the daily walking of 10,000 steps a day and perhaps they are looking to lose a few extra pounds and improve their diet. A good start would be to check the labels of foods and pick those low in sugars (less than 90g of sugar per day, at least the RI for Protein (50g per day), keep fat at the RI of 70g per day, focusing on essential fatty acids, such as those from olive oil, oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds.
‘The Weekend Warrior’ - this person eats poorly during the week but tries to make up for it on the weekend by exercising, perhaps doing a park run or hitting the gym. Eating more protein than the RI on the weekends and at least the RI on the other days will help improve their recovery. Eating a little less fat that the RI on the weekends will make it easier to eat enough carbohydrates from sources such as fruits, starchy foods (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes)
‘The Muscle Builder’ - this person is focused on muscle, building strength and increasing tone and this need protein from the breakdown during workouts. They may need between 2 - 4 times the RI to focus on building muscle depending on body size, choosing foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products and non-meat sources of protein such as beans, lentils, chickpeas. Where needed to meet requirements, functional foods (foods fortified with protein) and protein powders can play a role too. Muscles also need energy to grow! and providing extra energy by eating above the RI in carbohydrates and fats will support this.
‘The Serious Athlete’ - This is someone exercising 4 or more sessions a week and perhaps is training for a marathon. In this scenario, they need to think about tapering around workouts. Eating above the RI for carbohydrate, with some around workouts and less than or equal to the RI for fat on training days, will help refuel muscles with stored sugar, glycogen. Contrastingly, on non-training days, a lower than RI carbohydrate and fat intake, with a higher than the RI protein intake may support optimised body composition.
Adjusting food intake is more than just an exercise in calorie-counting. Thinking of nutrients and smart tapering your nutrition to suit your fitness goals will speed your progress quicker and with sustainable results.
Rick Miller is a Harley Street clinical and sports dietitian and Senior Science Editor for International Fitness Magazine. Rick is also a national media spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and provides elite nutrition services to professional athletes, such as the Professional Jockey’s Association.