This section will cover many of the nutrition basics that we have taught to thousands of our personal training clients. Nutrition can seem overly complex at times. And there is much room for customized individual plans. But if you follow these basic guidelines, you will have taken the most important big steps to great nutrition.
Tip #11 – Choose the right fats
The preferred choice of healthy fat is saturated fat. This may come as a surprise to many readers, but if you consider the chemistry of the fats, it makes a lot of sense. Unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils and even the famous fish oils, tend to go bad easily at the high temperature of the human body – 36-37 degrees centigrade.
Unsaturated fats have unstable bonds between the carbon molecules in the fat so they are highly reactive and cause many problems in the body when they go bad.
You will notice that plants and animals that are high in unsaturated fats live in cold climates (salmon in the near-freezing Atlantic ocean for example. At low temperatures unsaturated fats do not cause problems.
When there is lots of fat going bad in the body, it is a stressful situation and the body responds by lowering your metabolism to minimize the damage to your body. This makes it harder to reach your fitness goals of weight loss, fat burning or muscle building.
If your body needs unsaturated fats it is actually able to produce it from saturated fat. So there is no worry there.
So a major nutrition tip is to lower unsaturated fat intake and leave only saturated fats in their place. In practice, this means eating less overall fat, and using butter and coconut oil in your cooking.
Tip #12 – Make sure you get enough protein daily
As you age, you are at increased risk of osteoporosis (bone loss), sarcopenia (muscle loss) and weakening of your immune system. Low protein intake accelerates all these degenerative effects.
Older people also seem to require more protein to build and maintain lean muscle. Studies of older men seem to indicate that they require about 50% more protein to achieve the same levels of muscle growth as men in their 20s and 30s. This is probably due to lower levels of male sex hormones.
If you look around, you’ll find a lot of advice about how much protein you should eat each day. The low-end recommendations come in at about 50g per day for women and 65g per day for men. On the other hand, professional athletes and very physically active people may need four or five times that amount.
The low-end estimates are enough to prevent serious disease. But I almost always recommend more than that. We are trying to be as healthy and energetic as possible, not just trying to prevent disease.
Those low-end numbers make some assumptions that I do not believe are true for most of us. They assume:
- That you are under minimal physical stress. However, if you are going to do the training suggested in the section above, protein is required for recovery.
- That you have a minimal toxic load. Protein is required for detoxification. If you live in a modern city, you likely have a toxic burden that is not ideal.
- That you live with minimal disease. Protein is required for a proper immune system function.
While there will still be variations in the protein requirements among people, a good starting point is at least 1.5g of protein per kilo of body weight. So a 50kg woman would need at least 75g of protein per day, and an 80kg man would need at least 120g.
What does that look like in terms of “real food”? One palm-sized serving of lean meat like chicken, pork loin, white fish, lean beef mince or steak is about 25g. So that’s a good way to approximate your protein intake.
Tip #13 – Get enough plant nutrients
One of the few things on which almost all nutritionists and medical professionals agree is that we should eat more plant nutrients.
The benefits of plant nutrients come in many forms. In fact, many of the underlying reasons for these benefits are not even well-studied yet. We just know that they work.
The general guideline we give is that women should try to hit four fist-sized servings of veggies and fruits per day, and that men should aim for six to eight servings.
Try to get a variety of types and colors of plants, as they have different concentrations of nutrients.
The more overweight you are, the less of these servings should be fruit and the more should be veggies.
For example, a very overweight man should have perhaps one serving of fruit and six servings of veggies each day. But a lean, active man would be probably be fine with five fruits and three servings of veggies.
With these approximations, you should be well on your way to getting enough antioxidants, fiber and phytonutrients.
The following few tips are all related to plant nutrients.
Tip #14 – Get enough antioxidants
Rusting is oxidative stress on metals. An apple turning brown once it’s inside and exposed to air is oxidative stress on the apple.
A similar reaction happens in our bodies, damaging our cells and DNA. Stress, pollutants and even excessive exercise cause oxidative stress to build up in our bodies. As we age, we accumulate more stress on our bodies’ defense systems, and therefore we need more antioxidants.
Plant-based foods are much higher in antioxidants than animal-based foods.
Do not be fooled by media hype or fancy advertising. Every so often a news report will say that “magic fruit X” has the highest amount of antioxidants. Or that you only need one teaspoon of “super juice extract Z” for all your antioxidants requirements.
These claims ignore the basics of how antioxidants work. They work by giving away their own electrons to neutralize the bad guys known as “free radicals.” These bad guys would otherwise take electrons from healthy cells, damaging them.
So once an antioxidant has donated its electron, it loses its usefulness and needs to be “recharged.” By what? By other antioxidants. So you need more than one type.
Also, different antioxidants are effective on different molecules. Some work on fat-soluble targets, and some on water-soluble targets.
For example, vitamin E is an excellent antioxidant to protect us when we eat too many unsaturated fats. Thats why I eat 400IU of it whenever I eat a meal outside. It almost surely has too many unsaturated fats.
Vitamin D is effective on DNA. Vitamin C acts on the water-based parts of cells. And alpha-lipoic acid is a recycling agent for antioxidants, restoring them to their potent form after they have done their job.
Because of this interplay between different antioxidants, there is no single magic one. Your best bet is to make sure you have a good variety of them from food and supplement sources.
Tip #15 – Get enough phytonutrients
We currently know about more than 25,000 different phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in plants). And we don’t even know their full benefits, or how exactly all of them work. Phytonutrients are not essential to life the way vitamins are, but their benefits make them worth taking.
They are especially beneficial as we pass age 40 because they have protective benefits for many forms of cancer.
Almost all plant foods have phytonutrients. And like antioxidants, it’s best to get a wide variety from natural sources because we don’t really know yet how they all work together.
It’s also best to take them in natural form so that you are getting all the synergistic components in the package nature intended. Extracting individual phytonutrients is unlikely to be as beneficial.
All of the following contain phytonutrients:
- Whole grains
It’s best to get a variety of types and colors of each of these.
Tip #16 – Get enough fiber (both soluble and insoluble)
Fiber has properties that defend us against the common ailments of aging.
Foods high in fiber help to:
- Manage blood sugar to lower diabetes risk
- Help bowel movements to clear toxins and excess hormones, lowering cancer risk and obesity
- Reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Improve overall digestive health – especially soluble fiber, which acts as food for the “good” gut bacteria
Generally you should aim for 20g-35g of fiber per day, depending on your size. Women should shoot for about 20g, and 35g is a good target for larger men.
A combination of varied fruits and veggies along with natural starches should help you reach this target. If you are on a lower carbohydrate diet due to diabetes or obesity, you will need to supplement with insoluble fiber because it is mainly found in starchy foods. My suggestion is a tablespoon of potato starch in cold water twice per day.
Tip #17 – Get enough sodium
Many “healthy” people choose not to eat salt because they are afraid they will get high blood pressure. However, sodium is extremely important for cell energy production. Low sodium results in overall lower metabolism over the long run.
Sodium also lowers stress hormone production so its great for many people who are feeling anxious all the time. It is especially useful to combat excess adrenaline so if you find yourself nervous with a high heart rate, low sodium may be a problem.
Also sodium helps to retain the other minerals that I will be talking about in the next few tips so you will need to supplement less of them. And will retain more of what you do intake.
The increase in blood pressure is only temporary and as your body gets used to more sodium, blood pressure normalizes. Usually within a few days in our experience.
Finally, something that many people don’t know is that our kidneys are able to clear out A LOT of sodium. Estimates are that we can clear many times the RDA amount of sodium daily in a safe way.
So make sure your food has some saltiness to it. Plain salads with boiled chicken will definitely lead to sodium deficiency!
Tip #18 – Match your carbohydrate intake to your needs
Few nutrition topics bring up more confusion that carbohydrate intake. And there are indeed many variables that determine how many carbohydrates you should eat.
People over the age of 40 tend to need to be more careful what types and what amounts of carbohydrates they eat because they are less physically active. Tend to have poorer metabolism due to long term stress, and have less lean muscle. But like I explained in this blog post, everyone is unique. And if you are active and use strength training to maintain all your healthy lean muscle, you are not that different from a younger person.
Here are some of the more significant considerations that Genesis Gym’s personal trainers use when determining a person’s carbohydrate intake, especially when we are dealing with an older person.
- Genetics. Different races tend to have different requirements and tolerances for carbohydrates. Asians tend to do well with more, and northern Europeans need less. Some races like Native Americans and Eskimos do well with very little.
- Current body fat level. The leaner you are, the more carbohydrates you need. For a person who is fat, the increased blood sugar from carbohydrate intake tends to make them store even more fat. But for a lean person, the blood sugar rise tells their body not to break down muscle, thus preserving lean tissue.
- Stress level. If someone is under a lot of stress, it’s best not to put them on a low-carb diet. Carbohydrates increases serotonin, a relaxing brain chemical. Low-carbohydrate diets plus high stress usually equals terrible sleep quality. Not a good idea.
- Amount of daily activity. A person with a highly active daytime job can tolerate more carbohydrates in general. If you sit in an office, you certainly don’t need as much as a person who is walking around or lifting things all day.
- Type of exercise. The more hard training you do, the more carbohydrates you need. Lots of hard gym workouts, sprints, high-speed canoeing, etc. mean you need more carbohydrates. If you only go for a light jog, you don’t need much. In fact some endurance athletes do as well, if not better, on a low-carb diet with high fats. It’s the people who do short bouts of intense work that benefit the most from more carbohydrates.
Tip #19 – Get enough magnesium
If I had to choose one mineral supplement to recommend first, it would likely be magnesium, because I have seen so many signs of magnesium deficiency in people. At least half the personal training clients at Genesis Gym start out with signs of magnesium deficiency.
This is not a surprise, as magnesium is involved in more than 320 reactions in the body. And probably more that we don’t know of yet.
Some of the more obvious and common signs of magnesium deficiency include:
- Poor bone health and/or low calcium (magnesium is required for calcium absorption)
- High blood pressure (magnesium helps relax arteries to lower blood pressure)
- Muscle cramps/eye twitches (magnesium is a muscle relaxant)
- Poor sleep quality/anxiety (magnesium is a buffer against stress hormones which disturb sleep)
- Poor blood sugar/Type 2 diabetes (magnesium is part of the process that makes insulin, which regulates blood sugar)
- Age over 55 (lower digestive strength and poorer kidney function result in less magnesium absorption)
- Low vitamin D (magnesium is required for vitamin D absorption)
- Constipation (magnesium relaxes everything, including the bowels)
Restoring your magnesium levels almost always improves quality of life. Improved sleep, better bowel movements and less anxiety are the first things that usually improve. And those benefits are priceless for most people I have consulted with.
There are many types of magnesium supplements. I like any form that ends with the suffix “-ate” (e.g., magnesium glycinate, citrate, orotate, malate). The different forms have somewhat different uses in the body, but they all add to your magnesium intake. Try out a few forms and see which one gives you the most benefits. Everyone differs in this, and getting a variety is a good choice. But if in doubt, I have seen the glycinate form have the best overall result for many people.
Just don’t bother with magnesium oxide. It does not end with “-ate,” has terrible absorbability and often leads to loose stools.
As far as dosage, taking two capsules after dinner and another two before bed is a good start. In addition, you can try a magnesium drink like Natural Calm, a healthy and pleasant-tasting fizzy drink which helps add even more magnesium to your diet.
The only thing that you may want to take note of is slightly loose stools. This is a sign that you may be taking in a bit too much magnesium at one time, and your digestive system may not be able to adapt. Cut back slightly for a few days, then slowly increase the dosage. You can also try to add a bit more salt to your diet to help magnesium absorption.
Tip #20 – Get enough zinc
Just like magnesium, signs of zinc deficiency are pretty common in our clients when they start their personal training programs. These mineral deficiencies are largely due to the way food is grown. Food used to be grown in topsoil that was naturally fertilized and up to two meters deep.
Now food is grown in topsoil that is artificially fertilized and less than half a meter deep. These farming methods are great for crop yield, but each gram of produce has fewer micronutrients and minerals. This is because artificial fertilizer only contains the “big three” – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. We are often missing the remaining 25-30 nutrients that make up a healthy, naturally grown plant.
That’s why it’s possible to be well-fed but still malnourished! Lots of calories, but not enough nutrition.
Zinc, like magnesium, is one of the minerals that is usually missing.
Signs of zinc deficiency include:
- Weight gain (zinc is required to effectively shuttle nutrients into cells to be used as fuel instead of being stored as fat)
- Lower metabolism (zinc prevents excessive copper absorption, which causes lower thyroid function and more oxidative stress)
- Higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease (zinc protects the nervous system and brain)
- Poor sexual function (zinc increases sperm quality and prevents the conversion of male hormones to female ones)
- Low omega-3 and omega-6 fats (zinc helps convert omega-3 and omega-6 into forms that our bodies can use)
- Increased desire for savory/sweet foods (low zinc status results in less sensitive taste buds, making you crave tastier – and usually less healthy! – foods)
- Acne, brittle nails with white spots and/or deep ridges (zinc is required for healthy nails and skin)
There is a simple and cheap test for zinc status. Get a bottle of zinc sulphate solution. Take a teaspoonful of the stuff and note the taste in your mouth.
In functional medicine, there are four levels of findings from this test:
- Level 1 – Very deficient – tastes like water
- Level 2 – Mildly deficient – minimal taste that develops slightly over time
- Level 3 – Adequate – some initial taste that gets stronger over time
- Level 4 – Great – very strong, unpleasant and immediate taste – tastes like you just chewed a piece of your car door
To increase your zinc status, you have the “whole food” choice, which is to eat about twenty oysters per day. Oysters are nature’s best source of zinc.
Or you can go the supplement route, which is about 25g-50mg of a good zinc supplement for six to eight weeks.
You can re-test your zinc status every four weeks.
Also be aware that illness, stress and poor digestion will bring your zinc status down. So you will need even more if you have those in your life.
Tip #21 – Make sure you get enough water daily
I’m sure this tip comes as no surprise. But I do include it because I hardly ever observe people getting the ideal amount of water each day.
Water is especially important as we get older because the tissues in our bodies are more prone to dehydration. Did you know that most of our connective tissue is “hollow” and full of water? It’s no wonder that joints tend to get stiffer as we age and dehydrate.
But what is the ideal amount of water? The “eight glasses” recommendation is a good place to start. But can this possibly be the correct recommendation for everyone?
A petite woman working in an air-conditioned office doesn’t have the same water requirements as a large man working in an active outdoor job – especially in the heat and humidity of Singapore.
So if we can’t give a fixed recommendation for everyone, what do we recommend at Genesis Gym?
We actually suggest a pee target.
We want a client to have five lightly colored urinations per day. Number 2 on the chart below.
Hitting this target will require more water intake for a large, active man, and less for a petite, sedentary woman. We have found this kind of goal-setting more relevant to our clients’ personal situations than giving them a flat amount or “liters per kilo of weight” type of suggestion.
Why not number 1? Totally clear? If you are always having totally clear urine, there is a high chance that you are hydrated too much and urinating too much that you lose too many minerals in your urine.
Why only 5 times per day? Why not more? Excessive urination is a sign of a poor metabolism. Low metabolism means lower body temperature and less sweat production. This leads to excessive urine production.
Tip #22 – Filter your water
Now that you are getting enough water, it’s best to get good quality water. Most bottled water is no better than tap water, so that is probably not the best choice for daily drinking.
My current recommendation is a good water filter to remove any impurities and pesticides. A good particle and carbon filter does this quite well. If you really want to go all the way you can get a reverse osmosis kit, but that is quite wasteful of water.
One thing to note is that you don’t need to purchase the alkalizing feature on whichever filter you choose.
Yes, there are stories of how people “magically” lost weight because they drank alkaline water. But I believe it’s because they actually started drinking enough water. And they also likely replaced their former sweet and high-calorie drinks with water.
Why no alkalizing function? Remember that stomach acidity is very important for digestion. And is too low in many people, causing them to be unable to absorb minerals and nutrients as well as they, should. Yeah . . . alkaline water makes this problem worse. (See the next tip for more details)
Tip #23 – Make sure your digestion works
“You are what you eat” is an incomplete statement. More accurately, it should state, “You are what you eat, digest, absorb and eliminate.” In short, your entire digestive tract needs to work properly.
All the best veggies, fruits and healthy proteins that you eat aren’t very useful if you cannot break them down and absorb them.
This is where the health of your digestive tract becomes important. Once you learn how many important functions your digestive tract has, you will have even more motivation to keep it in good order.
- Your digestive tract runs from your mouth to your anus, and it is the largest organ that is exposed to the outside world. When spread out, it is the size of a football field. This large exposed area means that it is an important part of your immune system. Immunity weakens as we age, and keeping the digestive tract healthy will help prevent this weakening.
- About two-thirds of your brain chemicals are produced in the digestive tract. So a healthy digestive tract improves your mood, concentration and feelings of well-being. Conversely, a damaged, weak, infected digestive tract is implicated in depression and poor mental health.
- The digestive tract has a big role in detoxification. Bad stuff needs to come out somewhere! Feces and urine are the preferred methods of clearing toxins. Good digestive tract function accomplishes this, reducing the risks of cancer, diabetes and hypertension.
And let’s not forget the actual digestion of food. The digestive tract is amazing at this as well. Imagine how difficult it is to turn a piece of food into energy using fire. You would need to barbeque it for about an hour to totally burn it up and turn it into heat energy.
Your digestive tract can do this without the heat. It does need acidity and enzymes, though. That’s why your stomach is about 3 million times more acidic than the rest of your body. When it’s healthy, its can keep its acidity at the correct levels.
Good digestion of food means more nutrients absorbed, less bloating, no acid reflux and no constipation.
So how healthy is your digestive tract?
Take this quick quiz and score yourself for each symptom:
- 0 – if this is never a problem for you
- 1 – if you rarely experience this
- 2 – if you sometimes get this
- 3 – if you get this often or always
Section 1: Stomach (low acid) [good <10; bad >20]
- Excessive belching or burping
- Gas immediately following a meal
- Offensive breath
- Difficult bowel movements
- Sense of fullness during and after meals
- Difficulty digesting fruits and vegetables
- Undigested foods found in stool
- Pass large amounts of foul-smelling gas
- More than three bowel movements daily
- Frequent use of laxatives
Section 2: Stomach (high acid) [good <7; bad >14]
- Stomach pain, burning or aching 1-4 hours after eating
- Frequent use of antacids
- Feeling hungry an hour or two after eating
- Heartburn when lying down or bending forward
- Temporary relief from antacids, food, milk, carbonation
- Digestive problems subside with rest and relaxation
- Heartburn due to spicy foods, chocolate, citrus, peppers, alcohol and caffeine
Section 3: Large intestines [good <10; bad >20]
- Feeling that bowels do not empty completely
- Lower abdominal pain relief by passing stool or gas
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea
- Hard, dry or small stools
- Coated tongue or “fuzzy” debris on tongue
- Pass large amount of foul-smelling gas
- More than three bowel movements daily
- Frequent use of laxatives
Section 4: Small intestines [good <9; bad >19]
- Roughage and fiber cause constipation
- Indigestion and fullness last 2-4 hours after eating
- Pain, tenderness, soreness on left side under ribcage
- Excessive passage of gas
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Stools undigested, foul-smelling, mucous-like, greasy or poorly formed
- Frequent urination
- Increased thirst and appetite
- Difficulty losing weight
I hope you scored well. But if not, here are some things you can do to improve your digestion.
- Lower your stress levels (see Tip #36). Long-term stress, which many people over 40 have experienced, creates gaps in your digestive tract walls. These allow unprocessed food particles into the body, overstimulating your immune system and decreasing food absorption.
- High stress also reduces stomach acidity levels, leading to poor food breakdown and bloating. It is hard work for your body to keep the environment of the stomach sufficiently acidic. And when you are stressed, resources are sent to other parts of the body, making low stomach acid more likely.
- Remove commonly allergenic foods. Wheat, dairy and soy are the most common.
- Take a low-dose hydrochloric acid supplement (if you have no history of ulcers) to boost stomach acid levels.
- Take a blend of digestive enzymes to improve nutrient absorption.
- Add in probiotics, especially if you have recently been on antibiotics.
- Add in prebiotics to feed your good gut bacteria, especially if you have been on a low-carbohydrate diet for a long time. A tablespoon of potato starch in cold water twice a day should do the trick.
Tip #24 – Measure your salivary pH regularly
Some people are skeptical of the relevance of alkalinity to health. After all the snake oil that is sold in the “alternative health” world, they have a right to feel that way. But the argument they put forward is that your body has many systems to keep you at the right pH.
This is only partially true. Yes, your body is amazing at keeping your blood within a very narrow pH range of about 7.35-7.45 – just slightly alkaline. Anything outside this range and you die. Very quickly.
But nothing is free.
The way your body keeps your blood in the right range is by taking alkalizing minerals from the rest of your body. And these minerals are stored mostly in bone and muscle. That means weaker bones and muscles.
So how do you know if your body is under a heavy acidic load? Use pH paper. The kind I use has a range of 5.5-9. Using pH paper is cheap and you can find it online easily.
To test, simply lick the paper until it is wet with saliva. Wait a minute or so for the reaction to take place, then compare the color of the paper to the chart provided on the box.
I aim for a minimum pH of 7, and ideally 7.5. Anything less than 7 is cause for concern. I have seen readings as low as 5.5 or 6. They came from people who were having pretty severe lifestyle problems.
Things to do if you score low on this test are:
- Increase your vegetable and fruit intake. You are getting at least four to six servings per day, right?
- Increase your alkaline mineral intake, especially magnesium (see Tip #19).
- Reduce your stress load.
- Improve your sleep quality.
We typically see stressed, tired, sick people who eat a lot of processed, sweet foods score low on this test. When they change their lifestyle, they score higher and feel better as well.
No test is perfect, even those from the most expensive lab. They are all just pieces of the puzzle that give you different information. The pH strip test is affordable, can be done at home without any inconvenience, and gives a good overall indicator of health. So that is why I recommend you do it every two to four weeks, first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything.
Tip #25 – Manage food cravings with good food choices
A large body of research shows that total calorie intake is one of the most important factors in weight loss.
This means that from a strictly caloric point of view, if you eat 100 calories of sugar, it’s not that different from eating 100 calories of sweet potatoes.
(There are other longer-term health issues to consider, of course, but this tip is about more direct, short-term impact.)
This is all well and good in lab studies where people are fed controlled amounts of food, but out in the real world there is this thing called hunger! As a former fat boy who loves to eat (and whose favorite dessert is ice cream and waffles), I totally understand hunger and a love for food.
This is where healthy, whole food choices make a big difference.
For example, seven oranges have the same amount of calories as a hot chocolate drink at Starbucks – around 400.
Which of these choices is more filling, has more nutrients and is able to keep you full longer? It’s no contest, right? (The only problem is that the oranges are harder to eat.)
When you want to keep hunger cravings under control, it’s best to eat foods that give your brain a sense of fullness.
Your brain gets a greater “full” signal from unprocessed foods. The other benefit is that unprocessed foods help you avoid sudden spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Unstable blood sugar is another reason that you can have hunger cravings.
Sweet foods tend to give you a big blood sugar surge, then a big crash, signaling hunger. That’s why very sweet foods tend to increase your cravings for even more sweet foods.
In general, you want to eat foods that help you feel full because of their nutrient content, as well as their ability to stabilize blood sugar. See the chart below.