Nutrition for the Busy Lifestyle
One of the biggest issues I have found lately is that fitting in nutritional planning to a busy lifestyle more often than not leads to it being either a fleeting activity that disappears due to inconvenience, or becomes just a wish list activity that never gets checked off. Unfortunately, this often leads to too many instances where it is easy to just forget it and keep eating in old patterns. One of the best (worst?) ways to self-sabotage attempts to improve your overall wellbeing is to not think about what you are fueling yourself with. Most people are well aware that to be healthier, you need to eat healthier, but what does that actually mean? And how can you fit watching what you eat into a hectic life of jobs, kids, appointments and classes, laundry and homework?
Unfortunately, just like there is no on size fits all menu plan that can cover what everyone should eat for a healthy life as everyone's needs are different, there is no easy answer as to how to plan nutrition around life. The good news is that there are a few habits that can help.
Step one - the tracker. Everyone is different. Different preferences for phones (or dislike of using tech), different ways you respond to notifications, how you like to see data, or even how complex or easy you want things to be. Step one needs to be determining what tracking habit will work best for you, and commit to it. Be it an app on an iPhone or Android, pen and paper in a notebook, even a whiteboard or big calendar you can write on.... track what you eat. Ideally, you will want to track at a minimum calories as well as grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates. To better balance for health when exercising, I recommend also tracking sodium, sugar and fiber. While low carb especially is a hug fad right now, tracking sugar and fiber can both give you a better feel for where your carbs are coming from as well as help limit over processed foods, as lower added sugar and higher fiber usually goes hand in hand with less processed carbs such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits. While yes fruit has natural sugars in them, they also have fiber as well as other nutrients that make them worth the amount of natural sugars. Monitoring sodium is another way to help force yourself to limit pre-packaged, processed foods as many contain shocking amounts. Note that there are no recommendations here for how much of any macronutrient, fiber, sugar or sodium you should be tracking against. Those values have too many variables and need to be determined based on what suits you rather than a blanket "here is what you need to shoot for". However, the first step before you can make sure you are following those numbers is to have that tracking method in place and working for you. If you can't stick to tracking what you eat, those numbers won't help you get any closer to meeting your bodies fuel needs for fitness. Find what works for you, THEN focus on using it to help your manage your diet.
Step two - portion control. Everyone I know hates that phrase as they equate it with tiny portions and feeling like they are losing out. Yes - the average person completely misjudges portion sizes and probably will feel like a portion should be bigger than it actually is. That being said, without portion sizes being known and used, step one kind of goes out the window in a big way. It can be great if you log what you think is 3 ounces of chicken or a cup of broccoli, but even good food choices can become unhealthy options if that 3 ounces is actually 6, or 12, or 18 ... and can mean you are completely missing the mark as to giving your body what it actually needs. Too much of a good thing is still too much. This also doesn't mean that knowing portion control means you only ever get that 3 ounce portion of chicken. Depending on your bodies requirements, you may actually need that 6, 12, or even 18 ounce portion sometimes or even every time. That part comes down to knowing what you need and making sure you are getting it.
Another perk of learning portion sizes is that you can start to prep snacks and meals and get used to what a portion size should be in them. The more you portion out a serving of almonds, the more likely you are to replicate that serving size even when you aren't being precise and measuring. Consider it the cheaters method to portion control on really hectic days - train your brain to recognize what a portion should be. Very few people will follow exact portion sizes one hundred percent of the time, but the more you can recognize what it should be, the less likely you are to really misjudge on those days you can't take the time to measure. Over time you will start to automatically know what a portion size should be and the issue of over guess-timating what you are eating should disappear.
A last point on portion control - use what works for you. If you like weighing everything, use that method. Prefer cups, teaspoons and tablespoons, focus on that. Like to use both based on what the food item is, go for it! It is even okay to use pre-portioned food options if they are available, be it portioned bags of baby carrots or cheese to ready to eat meals that are made without excessive processing or additives. There are new options available every day, from healthy single serve protein cookies to overnight oats in a cup. Don't feel that portion control means you have to hand make everything, or that pre-made is evil or off limits. Simply be aware of how that pre-made food fits within your plan and what portion sizes and nutrition it provides.
Step three - simplify meal planning. Many of the tools from step one can also be used for meal planning, and it doesn't need to be hard to pre-fill in data ahead of time as a quick and easy form of planning meals ahead of time. This actually simplifies the process of meal planning and logging into one single action, and for the busy active lifestyle it can mean the difference between struggling over what to make for supper on busy workdays versus coming home and already having it mapped out. Lots of the apps on smartphones these days actually let you pre-build "meals" in and then simply select that meal as the entry on a given day to auto-populate, or let you tentatively populate a future meal but don't show it within your "eaten" foods until you go in and confirm it is what you ate. Yes, this may mean pre-planning meals on a weekend or shopping day, but if you know Tuesdays is always tacos for supper (and yes, tacos can be a healthy balanced meal if done right), plug it into your app, spreadsheet, notebook or whatever your logging method is ahead of time and re-use the entry as needed. If you work with a nutritionist who provides meal plans, ensure that they are aware of what methods you are using and that what they are providing is easy for you to enter for tracking. The few minutes taken to pre-plan your meals and pre-populate your tracker can save you time on busy days as well as even help to determine shopping lists to accommodate that plan.
The Last Step - figuring out what all your goals should be. This is the trickiest factor, and there is no one answer. You have options based on everything from what your goals are, how much you struggle with planning, how active you are, any specific dietary limitations you may have, and so many more factors that are all specific to you. You can find a hundred websites online with a hundred different options as to what your ratios of nutrients should be, and if you find what you want to try that you think you can stick to and that it meets your needs, try it. You can also rely on what an app tells you - most of the apps that you can use for the steps above can do rough calculations based on generic assumptions to give you goals. If all you are looking for is general guidance to eat a balanced diet, these may be enough for you, and there is nothing to stop you from working through different ones or tweaking one that almost works perfectly for you.
However, the general recommendation is that if you are trying to build muscle, lose weight, or have any health or wellness requirements or limitations that can complicate a generic diet plan, you need something that is customized to you. It needs to balance out your activity level, lifestyle, as well as considerations ranging from allergies to medical conditions to even cultural factors, and should also look at your own personal food preferences to ensure that what is designed for you is something you can actually follow. With a customized plan, there is a total focus on where you are now, where you want or need to get to, and a roadmap of how to get there. Fit that plan into steps one, two and three and you have a recipe for success.
Regardless of your overall goals or how hectic your lifestyle may be, using these basics to plan, have targets for nutrition, measure and track what you eat can all be used successfully produce repeatable, sustainable habits for health.