What Beginners Need to Know About Nutrition and Dieting

How diets work, different kinds of diets, and common steps for getting started.

Disclaimer - If you have specific questions about dieting for beginners, you might be better served by checking out the dietitians we love at Bamboo Nutrition.

If you came here for general information on nutrition for beginners, read along.

Older woman and child baking and conversing in a kitchen over cookies

There are several kinds of diets on the market. They're all aimed at the same thing, controlling what you eat.

Splurges aside, what you eat on average has an impact on you.

Some diets control food directly by counting calories and measuring.

Some diets control portions indirectly focusing more on things like habits, fullness, and timing.

Can you lose or gain weight without focusing on calories? Sure. A skilled dietitian is good at turning numbers into food and portions.

What matters most is picking a diet that meets your needs and your ability to stick with it consistently.

Today, we’re going to touch on how diets work. We'll talk about the different kinds of diets. This will help clear up any confusion you might have.

How Do Diets Work?

Nutrition and dieting are about improving your health, appearance or performance.

"Diet" is not a synonym for "fat loss or weight loss". Diets are what you eat and drink. Like strength training, most good nutrition approaches have commonalities.

The Six Diet Planning Principles:

  1. Adequacy - Getting the nutrients you need.
  2. Balance - Finding room for nutrients you need, without displacing others.
  3. Calorie Control - balancing intake with the amount of energy your body needs.
  4. Nutrient Density - selecting foods that provide the most nutrients per serving.
  5. Moderation - leaving room for enjoyment.
  6. Variety - is about selecting different foods from each of the food groups.

For more information on the six diet planning principles, read Nutrition Basics.

The nitty-gritty details of calories in/calories out can be found here. (That link is super sciency)

Weight balance is all controlled by calories. How you look and feel depends on what you eat with those calories.

Every diet controls calories in some way. The math is unavoidable. Where they differ is ease and preference.

Some diets work for some people because they limit foods that are likely to be overeaten:

  • If you eat a lot of bread, a low carb diet might work well (or seem impossible)
  • Eat peanut butter by the spoonful? low fat diets slow that down
  • Most diets push you away from pre-packaged snack foods
  • Higher protein and fiber diets keep you satisfied longer

A diet like intermittent fasting limits calories by managing time spent eating. Those diets may work for people prone to chronic snacking.

Habit and intuitive based diets work for some people because of their ease.

You don't need a meal plan, what you need is a system flexible enough for your lifestyle.

There is no one perfect diet so, this may take some trial and error.

Let's take a deeper look into how many kinds of diets there are.

How Many Kinds of Diets are There?

There are many different kinds of diets. They all have some similar things in common that allow them to be classified as one of the following:

  1. Macronutrient Focused
  2. Food Elimination Focused
  3. Timing Focused
  4. Serving and Food Group Focused

These are not mutually exclusive categories. Some serving and food group diets use aspects of other diets.

For example, combining timing or elimination and limitation of certain foods.

1. Macronutrient Focused Diets

These involve a manipulation of one of the three main energy containing macronutrients. Those are carbohydrates, fats and protein.

Technically, there is a fourth macronutrient, alcohol. For the purposes of nutrition it is not digested the same way or considered essential. Essential is something you need to live.

Different kinds of Macronutrient focused diets include:

  • Low-Fat Diets
  • Low-Carb Diets
  • Ketogenic Diets (their own thing but, technically a kind of low carb diet)
  • IIFYM (If it fits your macros)
  • High-Protein Diets

Read more about Macronutrient focused diets here.

2. Food Elimination Focused Diets

Removing a kind of food group from your eating plan is the focus here. There are different iterations that attempt to remove or limit one of the "big 8".

The Big 8 are foods that are known allergens by FDA law;

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

Elimination diets (without medical reasons like allergies) can vary. Some seem to be contradictory. Known allergens are promoted counter to claims that certain other foods cause inflammation.

For example, eliminating wheat, nuts and milk while emphasizing fish consumption (paleo).

Remember, if you've gotten results on paleo, I'm not telling you not to stick to it. (don't @ me, bro)

3. Timing Focused Diets

These diets consider when and how often you eat meals. There may be times of eating and fasting. There may also be aspects of eating certain kinds of foods at different times.

An example of this is timing carbohydrates and protein around activity. Athletes and weight lifters often use this strategy.

Another iteration is a mix between many, small meals or larger, less frequent meals.

4. Serving and Food Group Focused Diets

Diets in this category are considered the least controversial. According to Alan, these represent a "semi-current state of the evidence". The MyPlate program, is the United States Department of Agriculture's example of this.

Other serving and food focused diets include;

  • Government Guidelines
  • AND/ADA Exchange System
  • Mediterranean diet

I would also consider a habits based diet to fall under this category.

How to Start Making Changes to Your Nutrition

When clients approach me, I generally recommend one of two approaches to eating.

  1. A habits-based or intuitive eating approach to nutrition.
  2. Macronutrient focused dieting.

In either case, I would still recommend that you try your hand and meal prepping.

Meal prepping is a form of choice architecture. Choice architecture is setting up situations to make good choices easier. (Keeping Oreos out of my pantry for example).

People commonly use choice architecture strategies to help keep themselves on track.

Examples I've mentioned that are choice architecture:

  • Keeping foods out of the house that you tend to overeat.
  • Making meals in advance so, they’ve available when you get hangry.
  • Planning out what you can do if you need to go somewhere for food.

For a deep dive on choice architecture, I recommend you get a copy of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein detail how you can improve choice.

Thaler is credited with inventing this field, known as behavioural economics. He won a Nobel in Economics in 2017.

The foundations for controlling what you eat can make a couple assumptions:

  • You should eat mostly fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • You will eat at some frequency that works for you, 2-many meals per day. Usually 3-5 if you include snacking.

The Pros and Cons of Habit Focused Dieting

Habits based nutrition has more of a focus on what you do around the foods you eat.

Are you distracted?

That might mean:

  • Eating out
  • Watching television during a meal
  • Eating while at work
  • Eating with several friends

Situations like these influence people to eat more food than they normally would.

Ways you can combat these things include:

  • Setting your utensils down between bites
  • Stopping to talk to friends between bites
  • Setting a timer for eating
  • Turning off your television and eating outside

The Benefits of a Habits Based system:

Habits based diets are generally easier to start. There's a focus on action and simplicity.

If you've never dieted before, a couple small changes can have large results.

One example of this is a client that I got to focus on protein at every meal.

That one switch has changed her life in several ways:

  • She has more energy
  • Feels stronger
  • She's benefiting more from the strength training we’re doing
  • People have even complimented her on how her hair looks better

Once you set your goal, the focus shifts to the exact things you can do to reach it.

With the right platform, a habits approach can be highly informative.

Things can be scaled to the level you’re at now.

If you’re already eating healthy foods, dialing in on some of the basics can still be a change. The results you get from the little things will just be smaller.

Drawbacks of a Habits Based System:

The major drawback of a habits-based system is typical in it’s accuracy.

Common portions mentioned in habits based systems per meal are:

  • 1-2 palms of protein
  • 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates, like fruits or grains
  • 1-2 fists of vegetables
  • 1-2 thumbs of a healthy fat

I played some college football so, I’m larger than normal. Eating “2 palms of protein” for me is a ridiculous amount of chicken.

I much prefer to weigh my chicken portions 5-5.5oz of cooked meat.

Measuring helps me be a little more scientific and feel a sense of comfort and control.

What a Habits Based Meal Looks Like

a red factory icon with yellow lights on

A Palm of Protein:

Protein helps build lean muscle.

  • Eggs
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Chicken
  • Beef
a sprinting icon in green tights

A Handful of Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates fuel your exercise.

  • Banana
  • Oats
  • Pasta
  • Strawberry

A Fist of Vegetables:

Fiber helps keep you full.

  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Peppers
  • Mushrooms
Heart or like symbol icon

A Thumb of Healthy Fats:

Fats help regulate hormones.

  • Peanut Butter
  • Almonds
  • Avocado
  • Coconut

Sprinkled in spices and washed down with water.

The Pros and Cons of Macrocounting

The Benefit of Macronutrient Focused Dieting

A macronutrients approach is generally a next step for someone already eating healthy.

This system can work for someone who changes the foods they eat semi-regularly. When you go out to eat, you can adjust what you’re eating based on what is available.

Think of the numbers more as guardrails. There is a large degree of flexibility.

Ex. Try to eat around this amount of calories (a) hitting, (b) amount of protein, (c) carbs and (d) grams of fat.

If you need to make tweaks to gain, lose, and maintain weight, they're fairly simple. You can add calories here and there and watch your scale to see if they're working.

Drawbacks of a Macronutrient Based System:

The major drawback of a macronutrient focused diet also ironically revolves around accuracy.

When you go out to eat, most restaurants won't list macros. If you tend to have an obsessive personality, it can be difficult to put the numbers aside for a meal.

This approach can also seem very daunting to someone who hasn't dieted before.

There are a lot of numbers and small details available to track.

Macrofactor is a good app that can help you with all this. Read a review of my experience with Macrofactor here.

What a Macronutrient Based Meal Looks Like

a red factory icon with yellow lights on

A Serving of Protein:

Ex. 50 grams of protein is:

  • 8.3 Large Eggs
  • 500 grams of Greek Yogurt
  • 5.5 oz of Cooked Chicken
  • 7.14 oz of 85% Ground Beef
a sprinting icon in green tights

A Serving of Carbohydrates:

Ex. 50 grams of Carbohydrates:

  • 217 grams of Banana
  • 33.5 oz of Old Fashioned Oats
  • 7.14 oz of Pasta
  • 625 grams of Strawberry

A Serving of Vegetables:

Carbs can vary greatly per serving

  • 7g of carbs per 100g Broccoli
  • 9g of carbs per 100g Kale
  • 7g of carbs per 100g or Red Peppers
  • 3.3g of carbs per 100g of White Mushrooms
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A Serving of Healthy Fats:

Ex. 15 grams of fat

  • ~2 tbsp of Peanut Butter
  • ~1.14 oz of Almonds
  • 3/4 cup of Avocado
  • ~48 grams of Coconut

Of course you need to consider ALL the macronutrients in each food.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.