High Net-Gain Nutrition

Boost your health with nutrient-dense, easy-to-digest foods.

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Now that you know the basics of clean, plant-based nutrition for performance, plant-based proteins, and how to stock your cupboards with nutrient-dense essentials so you can build whole food-based meals any day of the week, it's time to go back to basics. By now, you probably realize that my nutrition philosophy is not based around calories but focuses instead on eating foods that are easy to digest and contain the greatest amount of each micronutrient per calorie. I like to call this high net-gain nutrition.

Why aren't we talking about calories?

If you're an athlete or have ever been on a diet, you probably know a lot about calories. Calories are a measure of food energy, so it would make sense to assume that the more calories you consume, the more energy you'll have. Growing up as an athlete, I certainly believed that. But I now know this isn't the case. If it were true, it would mean that if you ate a large, fast-food meal you would be bounding with energy – not feeling sluggish.

[See: A Look at 'Fast Food Facts 2013.']

Make your energy investment go further.

While you probably care about what your financial investments are doing while you're not looking, do you know what your caloric energy investment is doing after you eat? Your body needs energy for digestion and assimilation, and the more energy it takes to digest your food and absorb the nutrients within, the less energy you have to spend on movement and getting through the workday. You'll get a greater return on your energy investment if your body can easily digest and assimilate your food and move on with your day. Ultimately, your body needs not just calories but nutrition: micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients; and macronutrients such as carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.

Reduce stress through high-net gain nutrition.

Step away from focusing on calories, and turn your attention to nutrient density. Not only are whole, plant-based foods more nutrient dense – high in nutrition for relatively fewer calories – they are often easier to digest and assimilate, so your body doesn't have to work as hard. Higher net energy gain from these foods results in minimized stress, more energy and better sleep quality. You'll also feel less hungry because you are giving your body what it biologically craves – nutrients.

[See: The Best Foods for Sleep.]

Get high net-gain nutrition for life.

Swap out highly refined starches that are low in nutrition yet hard to digest such as pasta, white rice and bread for less processed, easily assimilated carbohydrates such as fruit and pseudograins. Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and wild rice can form a nutrient-dense carbohydrate base for meals (and they bring a welcome protein boost, too).

Build your daily meals around whole, minimally-processed, plant-based foods that are free of added sugars, common allergens (like dairy, gluten and soy) and artificial ingredients (flavors, preservatives or colors). By avoiding highly refined foods and artificial ingredients, your body can more efficiently digest what you've eaten and use the energy and nutrients it delivers faster and more effectively. Every nutrient consumed becomes a functional tool to support health and wellness rather than empty calories that simply end your hunger.

[See: Budget-Friendly Foods That Pack a Punch.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. He is now a successful performance nutrition consultant, bestselling author of the Thrive book series, formulator of the award-winning line of plant-based Vega nutritional products and creator of Thrive Forward, an online video series designed to inspire and educate people about plant-based nutrition. For more information, please visit www.brendanbrazier.com and follow Brendan on Twitter.