What Drives Food Choices: Nutritional Quality
There is no formal definition of ‘nutritional quality’ for the foods we eat.
My working definition would be that nutritional quality refers the composition of macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in the foods or meal consumed.
'Nutrient density’ is another term that can be associated with nutritional quality. Foods that have a high ratio of micronutrients compared to their energy content are termed nutrient dense. This means that for every calorie (or kJ) of energy this food contains, you receive more micronutrients than less nutrient dense foods.
For example, let's compare a large chocolate bar to a grilled chicken wrap with salad. They both have the same energy content (350 calories) but the grilled chicken wrap with salad contains more micronutrients, and a better range of macronutrients. The grilled chicken wrap with salad is termed more nutrient dense, even though the energy content is the same amongst both items.
Overall nutrition quality needs to take into account intake for the day or week, and must consider an individual’s needs and requirements for the day. Foods with a lower nutrient density aren’t necessarily bad and can still have a place in the diet.
Foods with greater nutritional quality are important for general health and functioning. Micronutrients are essential for carrying out many functions in the human body. Your skin, eyes and nails can noticeably deteriorate when certain nutrients become deficient.
Likewise, nutritional quality is required to support the importance and maintenance of body composition and performance. Although weight gain or loss is ultimately determined by energy intake and expenditure, the delivery of key nutrients can support both goals. For example: a higher protein intake is beneficial to the development of muscle tissue, even when energy intake remains stable.
Part of the reason supplements and superfoods are so popular is the fact that they provide greater amount of certain nutrients that are important to specific processes. However, unless there is a deficiency or potential to super-compensate the body’s stores, most of these will pass through the body and straight back out!
Why is it so hard?
Foods that have good nutritional quality aren’t always as appetising as foods that bring pleasure. If I offered you the large chocolate bar or grilled chicken wrap with salad and asked which one would you prefer to eat right now, what would you say?
I can tell you that not many people crave grilled chicken wraps with salad…
The same goes for convenience.
What is easier – buying a large chocolate bar from the vending machine at work or making a grilled chicken wrap with salad?
OK, even if you don’t need to make the grilled chicken wrap with salad, it’s still harder to find place that sells healthy food compared to chocolate, and it takes longer to purchase. These barriers are all important in determine the food choices an individual makes. As a coach, it is essential to take them into account and understand what your clients are dealing with, not just what you want them to do!
Quantity and Quality
There are two ways to increase the quantity – eat more quality food or eat it more often.
I will always recommend increasing the frequency of quality foods. Not only does this improve your nutrition intake, but it displaces poor food options. Adding more volume to meals might help you hit your nutrient targets for the day, but it can also lead to over eating when it does not displace other foods.
Increasing your calcium intake by drinking more milk is awesome! But if you also gain 4kg over 6 months from the extra energy intake, is that still a positive outcome?
A good example of this is bulletproof coffee, which is basically a long black with added cream, butter and coconut oil. The idea is that it optimises fat burning (which it might) but if you are currently maintaining your weight on 2500kcal and then you add a 500kcal beverage to lose weight, science will win and you will gain weight, not lose it!
To put this into practice, we need to address the barriers of pleasure and convenience.
To make food more pleasurable is as simple as we can. This can be through trying new recipes, adding spices and flavouring to meal as well as sauces. If adding a little bit of sauce to a meal makes it more appetising and enjoyable – do it! Just keep it on the side an under control.
Convenience is a little tougher. For some people, preparing meals in advance #mealprepsunday works well, as they have access to foods for the week. Other people might like to get their foods delivered to them for the week, although this costs a premium, if it works keep doing it!
My favoured approach is to just cook a little extra at dinner and take that for lunch the next day. Having a good idea of quick access or takeaway meals that fit your requirements also helps. If I get stuck without food I have some quick meals I can buy from a supermarket or buy from a store. For this reason, I also give my clients macronutrient guidelines for each meal, so if they are stuck without food they can refer to the guide and find something that suits!
- Nutritional quality is an important driving force for food selection. If it wasn’t, you would only eat foods that were pleasurable and convenient.
- The best way to improve your nutritional quality is to increase the frequency of meal containing nutrient dense foods. This has the added benefit of displacing foods of less nutritional quality.
- Address the barriers of pleasure and convenience in the best way that suit you.
You’re going to be eating anyway, so why not make it help your goals?