While there are required nutrients and important guidelines that everyone should follow, there is great freedom in how you meet those requirements. In order to stick with it, you should personalize your diet to meet your specific energy needs while respecting your preferences and culture to stay fueled for life.
We spoke with a registered dietician and certified sports nutritionist who shared her tips for creating a personalized nutrition plan for every goal and lifestyle.
Nutrition Throughout Human History
Looking at the current discourse around food and diets, you'd think that humans didn't start eating until the 1970s. While crazy diets weren’t unheard of before that point, fad diets exploded with the crucial combination of public interest and potent marketing campaigns.
Fad diets are any that offer a quick fix to complex health problems such as obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. The worst fad diets are extreme in nature, have a flimsy or non-existent basis in science, and can cause serious issues with your relationship with food and your body.
Fad diets like Weight Watchers and the Atkins Diet kicked off a non-stop flurry of books, commercials, and celebrity sponsorships that have shaped American culture and laid the foundation for disordered eating and body image issues for millions.
While modern-day influencers and beleaguered medical professionals alike debate which one is the 'best diet,' it's easy to lose sight of the role that nutrition has played throughout human history. Newsflash: humans were surviving and thriving long before Dr. Atkin arrived on the scene.
While the Mediterranean diet is often recognized as the overall best diet today, it's crucial to note that humans have thrived on every diet in almost every climate on Earth for thousands of years.
Is there one perfect diet for all people? No.
Instead, we know that there are essential components that every healthy diet needs and certain things we'd be wise to avoid. But within that broad framework, there are countless ways to hit those benchmarks while enjoying foods from your culture, foods you love, and foods that make your body feel good and move well.
Nutrition Basics: Everything You Need to Know
Before you create your personalized nutrition plan, you need to understand the basics of nutrition.
Why is this knowledge so important?
When you understand the science behind something and learn to navigate the evidence-based tools available to you, it becomes much easier to spot bogus health claims.
Knowledge inoculates you against misinformation, empowering you to make healthier choices without falling prey to snake oil salesmen and fear-mongering marketing tactics. For that reason, it’s crucial you understand a few nutrition fundamentals.
Macronutrients, Micronutrients, and The Energy Equation
The food we eat is made up of macronutrients (often called macros) and micronutrients. We need large portions of the macronutrients and much smaller portions of the micronutrients.
Macronutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for our bodies health and optimum function, but the 'perfect' ratio of macros is the basis of the intellectual holy war waged by diet culture combatants for decades.
Some of these fad diets are ridiculous and unhealthy , but most of them have at least some evidence that they work.
In truth, every diet devised by man works in the exact same way. No really.
Diets cause weight loss by creating a calorie deficit. Whether you raise protein and lower carbs, fast, or perform a sacred ritual under a harvest moon on the third Tuesday of the month–if you lost weight over a sustained period, it's because you ate fewer calories than your body used.
If you want to gain weight, you have to consume a calorie surplus. To lose weight, you must be in a deficit. To maintain the same weight, you must remain at your maintenance calories. This is called energy balance.
Now, just because the mathematics of energy balance is simple in theory, it's clear that the implementation and maintenance of weight loss is far more complex and requires a series of psychological, social, and behavioral changes working together to maintain that loss for life.
Weight loss is hard. Nonsensical fad diets that promote unhealthy and impossible-to-maintain nutrition choices make it much harder.
Instead of following a diet that doesn’t have evidence behind it and is just a vehicle for a nutritional grifter to sell you their book/plan/supplement–each of us should use the general nutritional guidelines to create a diet that works for us.
General Recommendations, Measurements, and Portions
So you know you need a certain amount of macros, vitamins, and minerals to live and be healthy, but how many exactly? That's where things get interesting.
The short answer is each one of us has different metabolisms, body compositions, energy outputs, genetics, and health goals. Because of that, we must make sure we’re tweaking our diets to meet our unique needs and preferences if we stand any chance of making lasting dietary changes.
To help its citizens make healthy choices, the US government has created various tools to help you follow a healthy diet. A few of those include:
Published every five years, this document provides tons of information on proper nutrition, serving sizes, and macronutrient suggestions—more on those later.
Provides a straightforward visual representation of the serving sizes of the main food groups, including fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy. It's important to note that these guidelines reflect the changing agricultural needs, political climate, and evolving nutritional science of the day.
You may have seen them on food labels listed as % Daily Value, and they tell you what percentage of a nutrient's recommended amount the product meets (based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which does not work for everyone.
It's well established that all of these basic recommendations aren't perfect or suitable for everyone. They merely provide a place to start.
A macro calculator is a better method to determine your specific energy needs, plus exact macronutrients. It uses your height, weight, exercise level, and specific goal to determine your calories and macronutrients. Again, even this value is just a starting point, but it's more accurate than any other option available.
Building Strong Nutrition Foundations
The good news is that most governing bodies, educational and medical boards, registered dieticians, and healthcare providers agree that the following guidelines are important for all adults to promote health and fight disease, regardless of your exact diet breakdown.
These ten actions provide a strong nutritional foundation for you to build upon.
- Eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies daily.
- Eat at least 25 g of fiber daily.
- Limit saturated fats.
- Incorporate healthy fats.
- Choose mostly lean protein sources.
- Limit added salt, sugar, and alcohol.
- Prioritize nutrient-dense foods over empty calories.
- Limit liquid calories.
- Eat adequate protein, carbs, fats, and calories to fuel your energy needs.
- Customize your nutrition plan to suit your preferences, budget, and culture.
A Quick Note On Protein
Protein is the star of the macronutrient show. Athletes, people who strength train, and anyone trying to lose weight or body fat need more protein than the 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight suggested in the USDA Dietary Guidelines. And that makes sense because those guidelines are the floor, not the ceiling.
They give us the reference value for how much protein we need to live, not to thrive, perform, and grow muscle. The same is true for people losing weight or body fat. For various hormonal reasons beyond this article's scope, you want to build and maintain as much muscle mass as possible, especially when in a calorie deficit.
Protein is also a very filling macro, so it's even more helpful for curbing appetite in a caloric deficit. Most experienced strength and body transformation coaches recommend 1 gram per pound of body weight (or ideal body weight).
Personalized Nutrition Advice from a Registered Dietician
Now you have a basic understanding of nutrition, you're ready to create a more personalized nutrition plan.
As you set out on your nutrition journey, it's crucial to remember that food is so much more than a calorie count or macro breakdown. It provides joy, pleasure, community, connection, and fuel.
You must create a nutrition plan grounded in reality and based on your current lifestyle, not an idealized fantasy marketed to you by an influencer. To do that, you need to gather data first.
Before she starts with a new nutrition client, Jordan Hill, a Registered Dietician and Certified Sports Nutritionist, performs an extensive onboarding process to collect data on their habits, family, environment, history, and goals before making any recommendations.
"You must have a long-term vision, and that goal needs to have meaning behind it. Without a deeper meaning, most people will not be motivated to see it through," Hill said.
Nutritionist Hill emphasizes the importance of understanding your habits and history around food when setting nutrition goals. A busy parent with food sensitivities will have different goals than a professional athlete, for example.
Starting Your Personalized Nutrition Journey
Once Nutritionist Jordan Hill clearly understands her client's lifestyle, habits, goals, and history, she creates a tailored nutrition plan just for them. If you're creating your own diet plan, you must assess your current eating habits before making changes. One way to do this is with a self-assessment.
Perform A Nutritional Self-Assessment
Humans are terrible at estimating their food intake and activity level. This is true across the board, regardless of weight or body size. Because of this, we can use tools to make the process more precise to get an accurate baseline of our consumption.
The best way to do this is by carefully recording what you eat. You can use a high-tech app or an old-school notebook. What's crucial is that you get an accurate, unfiltered picture of your current consumption. Including your coffee creamer, that handful of nuts, and that cocktail you sipped.
Try a three-day food journal as an exercise and then review that data. What patterns did you spot? Did anything surprise you? It can also be helpful to jot down a few notes about how you felt that day, if you were stressed, if something significant happened at work, etc.
Here are a few important tips for the food journal exercise:
Do: Record everything you eat, and I mean everything.
Don't: Change your behavior yet. I know it can be tempting. After all, you're embarking on a health journey. You may have already identified things you need to change about your diet. But you must have a clear view of your current diet before making any changes.
Do: Approach the process in an objective, scientific, curious manner. If we have a complicated relationship with food or our bodies, it can be challenging to look at our habits under a microscope. It is essential, then, that we put on our scientist hats and strive to approach this process with non-judgemental compassion.
Record & Review Your Data
When you're done with your initial food journal, it's time to review it. This is not about judging yourself harshly and picking apart any choices that weren't 'perfect' (remember: there's no such thing as a perfect diet!) Instead, try to look for patterns. This can take more than three days to pick out, so if you want to journal for longer, that may be helpful.
Once you've identified a few areas of improvement, implement one change at a time and keep tracking your data.
This doesn't mean you must exhaustively track every morsel of food in an app (though that is the most accurate way to track your intake).
You can keep a notes app on your phone and jot down how food makes you feel, keep a running tally of the days you met your protein or fiber goal–anything that helps you reach your individual goals.
An important note on food tracking and nutrition in general: If you are one of the 8.6% of women and 4% of men who struggle with an eating disorder, tracking your food may be triggering–even dangerous. I strongly urge you to seek professional support and get counseling from your primary care provider, a mental health professional, and a registered dietitian. A registered dietitian is the ONLY person who is qualified to prescribe a diet for you
Set Realistic Goals & Use Evidence-Based Tools
Using a tool like a macro calculator can give you a great idea of your baseline calorie and macronutrient requirements, and from there, you can make tweaks and changes to create a diet plan that suits you best.
While it's very helpful to track your food intake, there are methods that don't involve painstaking food scale measurements, which can feel overwhelming or disordered for some.
The goal is for you to eventually understand intuitively how much food your body needs to feel fueled and happy. My favorite way to do that is by using your hand to measure. This is easy, portable, and will help you learn about portion sizes, which will help you meet your intake goals no matter what they are.
You may be under eating, or you may be overeating. Neither one will help you reach your goals, so take the guesswork out of the equation. Over time, you will be far better at eye-balling portions.
Americans are notoriously fast eaters. In our stressed and pressed hustle culture, most of us eat on the fly whenever we can. But this is not great for digestion or honoring our internal hunger cues.
It takes about 20 minutes for our brain to receive the signal that our stomach is full and happy. If we scarf down a whole meal in less than that time, we often over-consume calories.
Try eating slowly and mindfully, not in front of a screen or on the go, and see how much more you enjoy the meal, savor the flavors, and improve your digestion.
Start Small and Build Slowly
Nutritionist Jordan Hill says the most important thing to remember when trying to make healthy changes to your diet is to start slow and progress even slower. It likely took you decades to develop your eating habits, so don't expect them to change effortlessly overnight.
Start by changing just one thing at a time. Practice that habit for as long as it takes to become second nature before adding a new habit.
Make Your Environment Work for You
It's important to engineer your environment for success, and one way to do that is by asking your family and friends for support. Making healthy nutritional changes should not feel isolating and does not require you to give up the cultural foods and traditions that are important to you.
Instead, focus on adding healthy choices, such as increasing your protein and fiber intake, adding colorful fruits and veggies, and drinking more water. It also helps when the whole family is pursuing a goal at the same time, so try to get active participation from important people in your life.
Keep your house stocked with healthy choices that support your goals, and prep your meals and snacks ahead of time to cut down on the need to eat out.
Anticipating Obstacles & Meeting Challenges
According to Nutritionist Jordan Hill, planning for challenges is crucial as you integrate your nutrition plan into your life.
"You're going to have setbacks. It's inevitable. So you need to normalize that process in your mind to build your resilience to overcome it," Hill shares. "Avoid the all-or-nothing, perfectionist mentality and remain committed to doing whatever you can. I call that all-or-something."
Curate Your Social Media Feed
Nutritionist Jordan Hill believes social media can help or harm your nutrition journey, so it's important to curate the accounts you follow. If you're a busy working parent, try to follow people on that same journey so you're not comparing yourself to pro athletes or fitness professionals whose physique/performance is literally their job.
Also, ensure you're following credentialed, educated professionals qualified to speak on their chosen topic. Registered dieticians will always be the best information source for nutrition topics. Just because someone has lost weight or gained muscle does not mean they are qualified to coach others to do so.
Refine & Adjust Your Targets Regularly
The single most important step you should take when personalizing nutrition is to constantly assess how a food, macro breakdown, or program makes you feel.
If your goal is to lose weight and you’ve faithfully tracked your food for a month with no luck, your actual energy expenditure is likely lower than what the calculator estimated, so try decreasing your calories from fat and carbs by a hundred or so calories and go from there.
If a certain food makes you feel bloated, gassy, or miserable–try cutting it out and re-evaluating in a few weeks. Food allergies and sensitivities can develop at any point in adulthood, and it’s also crucial that you find what food preparation tactics work best for your life.
You must build a nutrition plan that fits into your life instead of trying to bend your life around a diet.
Helpful Tools for Personalized Nutrition
Here are some of our favorite nutrition apps that help with food tracking, estimation, and education.
Food Journals & Nutrition Tracking Apps
- Cronometer Food Tracking App
- MyMacros+ Food Tracking App
- Nutrionix Food Tracking App
- MacroFactor Food Tracking
- Precision Nutrition | Portion Control Estimation Guide.
- Precision Nutrition | Health, Fitness, & Nutrition Resources
- USDA Nutrition.gov
- CDC | Nutrition Resources
Qualified Nutrition Coaching
Fad diets range from ineffective to dangerous, and there are much better ways to reach your health and fitness goals.
Personalize your nutrition plan to address your specific energy needs and activity level. For you to stick with your dietary changes for a lifetime, you must include foods you enjoy, foods that honor your heritage, and work for your lifestyle.
Instead of wasting time on weird cleanses or expensive supplements, focus on healthy habits like eating slowly, increasing your protein and fiber, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you can't make the change for life, don't start it at all and instead opt for slow and steady changes that add up over time.
Personalized Nutrition FAQS
Is there one perfect diet?
No. While the Mediterranean diet is largely thought to be the best diet around today, it's crucial to note that humans have thrived on every macronutrient breakdown in almost every climate on Earth for thousands of years. It's possible to incorporate foods from every culture into a healthy, well-rounded nutrition plan.
How can I use mindful eating practices to enhance the effectiveness of my personalized nutrition plan?
Eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full are extremely underrated practices that will improve your health and digestion and help you meet your weight loss or fat loss goals. Try eating slowly and mindfully, not in front of a screen or on the go, and see how much more you enjoy the meal, savor the flavors, and improve your digestion.
- The Mayo Clinic. Mediterranean Diet.
- USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.
- USDA. MyPlate.
- National Institutes of Health. Nutrient Recommendations and Databases.
- Harvard School of Public Health. How much protein do you need?
- Harvard School of Public Health. Fats and Cholesterol.
- Precision Nutrition. What Should I Eat?
- Precision Nutrition. The Ultimate Macro Calculator.
- Psychology Today. Why We underestimate What We Eat.
- National Eating Disorders Association. Eating Disorder Statistics.
- Precision Nutrition. Portion Control Estimation Guide.