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Eating Well and Staying Healthy: Tips and Tricks for Beginners

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This blog post is intended for people looking to lose weight and eat a more healthful and balanced diet.  Disclaimer:  I am not a health professional, and you should speak with your primary care physician and/or a licensed dietitian before making any life changes, beginning new diets, fitness routines, or taking any supplements.

That being said, I have the benefit of having gone through my own fitness journey which is still ever evolving, but led me to becoming a nationally certified personal trainer.  After I got struck by lightning in the year 2010,  I gained A LOT of weight.  When 256lbs was in the rear view mirror I decided enough was enough and it was time for a change.  My parents had instilled some basic nutritional knowledge in me growing up and there was a common sense element that processed foods, Oreos and ice cream, etc. were bad, but I knew nothing about triglycerides, cellular nutrition requirements, or foundational principles of bioenergetics.  I was already at a disadvantage starting my weight-loss journey after a traumatic incident which caused some damage, so I decided to become an ACE certified personal trainer.  Between those studies, enrolling in a Human Nutrition class at Northern Arizona University (and getting a 100% in the course), and lots of independent research, I was able to get my own weight back under control.  My fitness journey has taken me down many interesting paths, one of which was competing on American Ninja Warrior.  This post isn’t going to get into fitness activities however for that you can just download a copy of my book Bodybuilding Anywhere here for free, or buy a copy on Amazon if you’d prefer one which is Kindle friendly.

Now as a commercial pilot and flight instructor it can be challenging to stay in shape and maintain proper nutrition, healthy weight, and a decent amount of physical activity.  Personal fitness should be a constant closed loop system in which you monitor, make changes, analyze, etc.  The process is no different for me, but I have somewhat of a routine for making changes by now.  I wanted to create this blog post to share with all of you what I do, in hopes that it’ll help someone out there just beginning a fitness journey to ask the right questions.  PLEASE NOTE, this is my personal routine for making changes to my diet and fitness routine, and does not take into account ANY medical conditions, dietary restrictions, or other individual considerations.  

Dan Weecks-isms for a better diet

Tl;dr:  I’ll get into the more nerdy stuff below, but here are some tips and tricks I use in general practice to help keep my diet on track.  **NOTE: I do not normally stick to a specific meal plan or diet unless I’m trying to hit a specific fitness goal, I just eat well, meal prep, and follow some basic principles.**

  • Eat foods which are ingredients rather than those which contain ingredients.
    • Ingredient foods: beans, apples, bananas, fish.
    • Foods containing ingredients: banana nut bread, pre-frozen green been casserole, fish sticks, apple pie.
  • Stick to shopping on the outside of the food store rather than going down the isles
    • This means your produce section, meat and dairy section, and some items in the bakery (like FlatOut wraps) for cheat days.  NOT the isles which contain pizza, Pepsi products, etc.
  • Get up and MOVE!  The human body was meant to move and not sit sedentary.  If you’re in a job which requires you sit for long durations, that’s fine… just make sure you’re taking a break every half hour-45 minutes to stand up and at least pace, stretch, and refocus your eyes.
  • Cut out alcohol entirely.  If you can’t stop cold turkey, make an actual effort to stick to the bare minimum OF THE CLEAR STUFF.  Vodka and gin have a lot less calories and worse of a fattening response than fruity cocktails and mixed drinks.
  • DRINK MORE WATER!  No arguing.  You don’t drink enough water.  Take what you’re drinking and add some, most likely more than you’d initially think.  Personally I aim to drink a gallon a day.
    • Many of you are going to complain about plain water being boring, and I’m here to tell you that the covalent bonds of H20 and your body’s reaction don’t care whether you enjoy the taste or not, however there are some things you can do to make water taste more fun. If you just HAVE to flavor your water, a good way to do this is brew tea with no sugar, mix in some amino acids, or other non-sugary or additive options to flavor your water.
      • Fun fact: according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department on Agriculture about water quality, a no-cost method to remove the chlorine taste from a municipal water supply such as a faucet is to boil the water for 15-20 minutes and then store in a clean container in the refrigerator.

The nerdy stuff: more in-depth

The role of diet and nutrition in disease prevention, mitigation, and treatment is far more substantial than most people realize.  Food is fuel for the body and while the general premise of consuming less calories than you burn will result in a weight loss while an excess will result in weight gain is technically accurate, the quality of what is being consumed is equally, if not more, important.  When food is broken down by the metabolic processes, there are nutrient-specific functions in maintaining health, preventing further diseases, and ensuring the human body’s systems are all working in tune with each other, and properly on their own as well.  The following steps aren’t specific actions to suddenly help you [insert fitness goal here], but rather to get better educated and use the resources I’ve compiled, your own resources, and some general common sense to help you design your own meal plan and stay in good health.

  1. Log your food!  Just simply writing down EVERYTHING that goes in your mouth for a solid week.  This will give you some good base information.  I specified everything which goes in your mouth because in the past I’ve heard people state that drinks don’t count as food, chewing gum is negligible, and similar… the bottom line is that your body doesn’t care what it is being broken down, only that it’s there.  In the case of chewing gum (according to the label of a pack I have lying around), there are 5 calories per serving size (2 pieces), 2 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of carbohydrates.  Yes it still counts, even if you don’t (and shouldn’t) swallow it.
  2. Weigh yourself and check your blood pressure.  When I’m making a change to a diet or fitness regimen, I begin by collecting information about my current physical state.  I routinely monitor my blood pressure and pulse and have a constantly evolving log, but don’t often look at my weight.  This is because your weight, or in other words the gravitational force you exert on a scale, HAS NO BEARING to your physical composition, overall health, or attractiveness.  When I have helped train friends over the years, I tell them all up front to stop looking at their scales more than once or twice a week; this is a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down.  Instead, look at yourself in the mirror and take progress pictures.  THAT is where you’ll see a difference in addition to other potential health benefits like a decrease in blood pressure over a period of time; exercise, specifically cardio (I prefer HIIT type workouts), should help strengthen your cardiac muscle which will increase the regular output of blood and decrease resistance.
    • NOTE: it is normal for your systolic (the *first* number) pressure to increase slightly during exercise because the cardiac output of blood increased which adds mean arterial pressure, and your diastolic may decrease due to the vasodilation of your arteries.  The health benefit statement is a long term benefit from consistent and routine exercise and proper diet.
  3. Find your BMI.  BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a VERY ROUGH AND POTENTIALLY INACCURATE method of measuring body fat based on your height and weight.  This is still a good reference to use for most people reading this and a good number to know starting your fitness journey, but just be aware that if you add a ton of muscle and reduce your fat %, your BMI results will become further skewed; for instance, my current BMI number at the time of this writing is 31.5 which is considered to be “obese” simply due to my height/weight ratio despite the fact that I have less than 20% body fat, run and lift weights every day, and have lost inches around my waist in recent years.  As such however, it is written in my medical chart that I’m obese accompanied by my Doctor’s observation that I’m in “excellent physical shape, very muscular and fit”.  The most accurate analytic tool to use is a water immersion test  (hydrostatic testing) to measure your body composition, or the cheaper option of having a personal trainer or other trained professional do a 7 site skinfold caliper test.  The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers this helpful calculator to find your BMI.
  4. Find your BMR.  Your Basal Metabolic Rate, commonly referred to as BMR, is the amount of energy someone expends from simply existing; that is to say that if I am resting and not doing any physical activity in a neutrally temperate environment at a digestively idle state (aka fasting), by virtue of my body’s natural processes occurring I will burn 2,156 calories per day at the time of this writing.  There are tools on the internet like this one to easily calculate your BMR.  Armed with this knowledge, you now have a baseline to work off with your daily diet.  In my case if I’m trying to lose weight, I would aim to consume an even 2,000 calories a day or so, 2,200 to maintain my weight, and about 2,400 calories to gain.  The caloric change should be small… remember, this life thing is a marathon, not a sprint.
  5. Forget everything you’ve heard about bad fats, carbs, and sugar.   Sorry guys and gals, that statement isn’t me giving you a hall pass to eat bon bons and donuts.  Just know however that your body does require certain of each nutrients on a daily and longer term basis to sustain your proper bodily functions, fight diseases, and more.  You can listen to a podcast by Dr. David Katz here, a Doctor and guy with a lot of letters after his name.  He knows a thing or two about nutrition and has quite literally written the book on functional nutrition across the lifespan.
  6. Use the USDA’s DRI calculator.  This is a free calculator provided as a resource by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  I’ve noted that every time I’ve used it, the estimated daily caloric needs have seemed very high  (in my case, almost 1,500 calories more than my BMR), so take that with a grain of salt and as previously mentioned, contact your healthcare provider for specific information.  This DRI calculator is great though because it allows you the versatility of eating foods you’d like by fitting them within your required nutrients.
    1. Note your daily required water intake.  It is listed on the DRI calculator as the last line in the Macronutrients section.
  7. Educate yourself. Every 5 years, the HHS and USDA publish a new set of Dietary Guidelines for the American public.  The purpose of these is to provide guidance to American citizens so readers can make educated and healthy food and beverage choices.  The Guidelines are based on the latest body of nutrition science, data collected, and analysis by health professionals.   By reading through these, you can at least help educate yourself more about making good nutritional choices.
  8. Read nutrition labels on products.  If there aren’t nutrition labels because something is an ingredient food (good job you!), you may use the USDA’s FoodData Central service to look up the exact macro/micronutrient, vitamin, calorie count, and so much more.
  9.  Understand what serving size is describing.  The term “serving size” refers to the FDA’s interpretation of an average amount of food consumed by a person 4 years or older.  This is important because it provides a reference for what is considered normal for an average healthy adult, and is a good way to monitor intake.  In addition to being a good tool while shopping, for example looking at “servings per container” to judge how much of a product should be purchased, the nutrition information is listed for “___ servings” and therefore the nutritional profile, macros, and micronutrients can be interpolated.  This means if a can of chicken noodle soup says 1 serving size contains 350mg of sodium and a sick person is planning on eating the whole can, it is very important to note that most cans actually contain multiple serving sizes; if there are “4 servings per container”, then it is not 350mg of sodium being consumed, but rather 1400mg of sodium.  In the case of the gum I listed in step 1, there are 2 sticks of gum per serving.  I don’t know about you but I don’t usually go around eating multiple pieces at the same time, so without the understanding of this breakdown, you can severely compromise your meal plan.
  10. Design a food logIf I am going to plan out meals, I personally use this 6 day food log template, and have a cheat day on a 7th day if I feel like it, or just start over at Day 1.  An AWESOME resource for easy meal planning once you know your target caloric daily burn is EatThisMuch.com.  The foods are up to you, but this is a good planning tool so you can do the book work of counting calories and nutrients before you get hungry.  It also helps with shopping lists and planning for your week.  Important to also note, it helps to vary your foods a bit day to day, or to give yourself options to choose from so you don’t burn out from eating the same dish over and over.  I tend to eat mostly a vegetarian diet with some fish mixed in so I’ll make a fried rice dish with tofu or salmon, vegetables, and natural spices and seasonings and it usually lasts for a few meals.  If I’m cutting back on carbohydrates and want to focus more on whole fruits and vegetables, I’ll make a salad with a lot of vegetables, spaghetti squash pasta, zucchini noodles, or cauliflower rice to still satisfy the craving.  I’ve got a major sweet tooth so I factor that in and allow for dark chocolate, fruits like watermelon or mangoes, and berries.  If I’m feeling really wild I might eat one spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food or The Tonight Dough… just enough to satisfy the craving but not enough to make buttons pop off my clothes.

Good luck on your fitness journey and thank you for reading!   I hope these resources helped, and as always, feel free to share your progress stories with me!

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