By Morgan Skatz, RD, LDN
How should you prioritize your nutrition? Such a big and nuanced question! It really depends on where your relationship with food and your body is because nutrition can easily turn into an unhealthy set of rules for some people.
Here is my recommended, rule-free, hierarchy of nutrition:
1. Eat Enough
For most people, this means 3 meals a day, plus snacks based on hunger. When you do not eat enough, your body cannot utilize the nutrients you are eating optimally.
Eating enough means that sometimes you may need to eat food you do not love because it is all that is available and will be the only thing available for a while. Or maybe it means grabbing a quick snack, like a bag of chips, an apple, or a candy bar because you do not and will not have access to a more balanced, satiating option for a while. Eating anything is always better than nothing. Remember, baseline your body needs enough calories (or energy) to be able to do anything at all.
Be cautious when using calorie counting apps to calculate your daily calorie needs, they are notoriously known for estimating very low. To find out your specific needs the best thing to do is talk with a registered dietitian.
2. Choose Flavors You Enjoy
Taste is important! Are you surprised this is second? Choking down food you do not like, for the sake of "health", is not healthy. When you do not eat flavors and food that you enjoy you will have a hard time feeling satisfied. When a person is not satisfied from food they often find themselves back in the cabinets looking for something else to eat. This can lead to eating way past hunger satisfaction. For example, you do not need to force yourself to eat plain oatmeal if you actually enjoy oatmeal made with whole milk
and lots of toppings. If you force the plain oatmeal for the sake of less calories or health misconceptions, you may be missing nutrients that you could have gotten from the toppings and you may find yourself back in the cabinet 15 minutes later looking for something more to eat, and end up eating three times as
much than if you had just chosen your preferred oatmeal in the first place. (I love to make oatmeal with whole milk, chocolate chips, peanut butter, and strawberries stirred in – yum!)
Pleasurable taste is also what keeps us eating. It is one piece of the puzzle that keeps us alive. Have you ever been sick and lost your taste? Eating is not fun or something you want to do during that time. It also keeps us eating nutrient-dense foods. Boiled asparagus? No thanks. Asparagus roasted in olive oil with garlic and topped with parmesan cheese? Yes, please!
3. Eat All 3 Macronutrients
Next, aim for all three macronutrients on your plate. Carbohydrates, fat, and protein are all key nutrients in the body. Consuming all three at meals (and at least two of the three at snacks) provides satiation, satisfaction, and energy. As well as better blood sugar control, better digestion, hormone regulation, muscle growth and maintenance.
4. Incorporate micronutrients
Micronutrients (micros) are vitamins and minerals. They are abundantly found in macronutrients, but here I'm talking specifically about fruits and vegetables. Yes, they are the last piece of nutrition to prioritize. It can be very hard to eat enough and live optimally when you are mainly eating fruits and vegetables. They are so beneficial to the body, but they do the most for you when you are eating enough, eating the macronutrients, and enjoy the taste of them. Studies actually show that when you hate eating something you absorb less of its nutrients.
Try out this hierarchy for prioritizing nutrition and see how it feels. Remember there is a lot of nuances in nutrition and once something becomes a hard rule it is probably not healthy for you to keep following*.
If you have further questions I recommend reaching out to your local dietitian for individualized advice.
*Some very specific medical conditions do require strict nutrition rules, please speak to your doctor and dietitian if that applies to you.