Nutrition - Delving Beyond the Numbers

Take a look at the diagram below, courtesy of Helms et al (2016). 

This pyramidal diagram neatly and accurately depicts the priorities one should follow when attempting to diet for body compositional changes. The most important pieces (energy balance & macronutrients) form the foundation of the pyramid. They are the most important considerations & should be addressed before all others. The factors above energy balance and macronutrients become increasing less important and shouldn’t really be considered in too great a detail before getting the foundations in place first. In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse.

So nutrition is simply a numbers game then?

At the bottom we have 'Energy Balance'. Calories In vs Calories Out (CICO). Numbers.

Above that we have the ratios of macronutrients. Numbers.

Two steps above that we have 'Nutrient Timing'. What time should I be eating? How many meals a day should I be consuming? Numbers.

Above that, Supplements. How many mg of Zinc should I be consuming? How much Creatine do I need to load with? Numbers. 

Anyone would think that nutrition is pure mathematics! Here are a few more examples: -

  • Calculating Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) to establish a baseline of calories to consume
  • Trying to calculate calories expended through exercise
  • Trying to workout how much protein to consume in each meal
  • Trying to work out how often to eat and how long after training one should be consuming food

Is it any wonder that many people get completely overwhelmed by this mass of information flying their way? We live in a world where information is more abundant than ever before. We have so much information available at our fingertips. Yet, to paraphrase Derek Sivers, if more information was the answer then we would all be billionaires walking around with 6-pack abs. Certainly not the case.

Nutrition is more than pure mathematics!

Nutrition is more than pure mathematics!

So, if counting calories and macros is not your schtick, what factors must you consider in order to lose fat (or keep it off)? Here are a few: -

  • The Emotional Value of Foods:

“An increasing proportion of human food consumption appears to be driven by pleasure, not just the need for calories”

“humans have a hedonistic mind-set, inclined to pursue happiness. Foods rich in sugars and fats offer potent rewards, which promote eating even without energetic requirements for food” (Keijer, J et al, 2014)

I like to call this the ‘second stomach’ or ‘dessert stomach’ phenomenon. How often have we eaten way beyond our caloric needs for the day yet still found room for our favourite Double Chocolate Belgian Cheesecake. In these scenarios we are no longer eating for calorie needs, we are eating out of pleasure. Eating for pleasure is what has been referred to as ‘hedonic’ eating. This stands in contrast to eating for caloric need, otherwise known as ‘homeostatic eating’.

Using food as a reward teaches you to consume that food when experiencing emotional stress. A cheat meal basically creates your own comfort food. Guess what happens when the dieting gets hard? You turn to the comfort food. Many people with a weekly cheat meal or day find themselves thinking about it the whole week. Whereas if you never eat a food, you simply forget about it and you never miss it anymore. It disappears from your mind’s internal menu, just like words disappear from your active vocabulary when you stop using them. Most processed foods simply stop looking like something edible altogether (Henselmans, 2016).



  • The Nutrient Density of Foods: Whilst overall calorie intake is extremely important, it is also essential to provide the body with adequate amounts of the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and anti-oxidants it requires to function optimally. Many of these need to be obtained from your diet. However, the ironic situation we have in many western countries is one in which people have an over-abundance of calories but are finding themselves malnourished. This can largely be attributed to an over-reliance on processed foods that don’t provide anywhere near the level of nourishment a diet consisting of whole foods would.


  • The Energy Density of Foods: The energy density of a food relates to how many calories there are per unit of food. In order to structure a sustainable diet that provides an energy deficit, it is important to select foods with a low energy density, but a high volume of food, such that there are few calories per bite. Foods such as chicken, turkey, fish of all varieties, green vegetables, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, berries, melon etc. These are foods that score well on the Satiety Index (SI) that was established by Holt et al (1995) who tested the satiety of 38 different foods and scored them against white bread. The findings that were although foods were of the same caloric value (240kcal in this case) they varied greatly in their satiety. For example, the findings from this study found that boiled potatoes had an SI score 7x higher than that of croissants.

 Conversely, in order to overeat at any given meal, ensure the meal complies with the following: -

  1. Energy/calorie dense
  2. Low in protein and fibre
  3. Highly palatable (see point 1)

So what foods may fit this description? Donuts? Tick. Muffins? Tick. Milk chocolate/white chocolate? Tick. Ice cream? Tick. Cheesecake? Tick. Pastries? Tick. Pizza? Tick. Soft drink? Tick. Cocktails? Tick. Basically, highly processed carbohydrates, foods high in fat and containing little in the way of actual ‘nutrition’. Put simply, energy dense yet nutrient poor. This is the worst combination you can hope for if losing weight (or maintaining lost weight) is the goal.

High palatable, energy dense, low in protein, fibre and nutrient poor. A recipe for disaster!

High palatable, energy dense, low in protein, fibre and nutrient poor. A recipe for disaster!

  • Your Food Environment:

“We live in a society where most of the food is at a level of reward/palatability that our species has never encountered before. We're surrounded by it, and everywhere we turn, someone is jockeying for our attention, trying to get us to purchase their food.” (Guyenet)

“It is already quite clear that the modern food environment has changed, and promotes increased energy intake and sedentary behaviour” (Zheng et al, 2009).

The environment that surrounds us has large implications over our food choices and overall energy intake. The environment we now live in is often described as being ‘obesigenic’ due to the way the built environment inhibits active lifestyles (Hall et al, 2014). This environment is one that discourages, rather than encourages physical activity. We have access to any type of food and it is no more than a couple of clicks away thanks to companies such as ‘Uber Eats’ and ‘Deliveroo’. We are certainly hunter gatherers no more!

Brian Wansink has described the 5-10km radius around where we live to be our 'food radius'. The average American buys or eats 80% of their food within a 5 mile radius of where they live.  On the very small scale, it relates to the food we keep in our cupboards and fridges. Beyond this, our social environment also plays a role. Studies have shown that we eat more calories at weekends and when dining in groups. Ensure you try to fill your cupboards and fridges with healthy snacks and foods so that when tempted to reach for something you have a healthy option at hand. Keep cut up fruit and vegetables at eye level in the fridge & keep these in clear plastic containers/bags so that they are very visible. The healthier the food is, the clearer the packaging you should use to store it. 

So I want to Lose weight & Keep it off, What do I focus on?

  • Base at least 80% of your diet on whole foods that are low calorie, high volume, high fibre, and nutrient dense. Make them foods you enjoy eating and can access or prepare easily. 
  • By all means include 'sub-optimal' food in your diet. However, manage the intake by placing restrictions around the amounts and frequency of consumption (e.g. I will eat 1 square of dark chocolate in the evening after my training session). Provided 80% of your diet is coming from optimal foods, you should still find yourself making progress.
  • Try to control your food environment to the best of your ability. As Brian Wansink says, “is easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind”. Fill your cupboards with foods that comply with point 1. If you keep junk food in your house you WILL eat it at some point. 
  • Practice mindful eating - minimise distractions, eat slowly and chew your food.
  • If progress stalls, accept that perhaps counting calories and macros could be a good option to assess intake and make adjustments.