#13: Diet Quality
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
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The last post #12: Racing Weight was the introduction to a series of blogs I'll be writing to focus on nutrition and eating habits. I'll pretty much be summarizing Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. In that post I focused on why being lean is so important for endurance athletes.
Now that you know the why behind leanness, we can start to focus on how we get to that leanness. In this post I am going to talk about Step 1 in the Racing Weight system: Diet Quality.
The Importance of Diet Quality
Your body is a race car. And race cars require the highest quality fuel in order to go fast. If you fuel a race car with normal fuel or low-quality fuel, it won't go fast. This is how we need to think about our body and the food we put in it. Our food is fuel and how we perform depends on the quality of that fuel. This is diet quality.
"Think of food in a new way: as the fuel that enables you to achieve your dreams and goals." -Chris Carmichael
And yet, we often ignore this simple truth. This neglect shows us that something may be simple, but that does not mean it's easy. Not eating donuts is simple: don't eat donuts. But when you're standing in front of the rack of freshly made donuts at the local HyVee, that simple rule of "don't eat donuts" becomes really hard to carry out.
Fitzgerald's idea of diet quality is make it simple. He says, "Although effective weight management may never be easy, it can at least be simple." And this is why I've embraced his Racing Weight system. It doesn't have to be this complicated process of counting calories and weighing out each portion of food. It's already hard enough that I can't eat donuts so don't make it even more difficult than it has to be already. The more simple we make it, the more likely we are to adopt it into our every day lifestyle.
"Improving your diet quality is the first step of the Racing Weight plan because it is the single most effective way to get leaner - and the simplest. If you did only one thing to shed excess body fat, adding high-quality foods to and subtracting low-quality foods from your diet would be the way to go." -Matt Fitzgerald
Diet Quality Score
Not happy with any of the modern methods of tracking diet quality, Fitzgerald created his own method called the Diet Quality Score, or DQS for short. The DQS is a simple and practical tool for measuring diet quality and takes into consideration both variety and moderation, which are both tied to a healthy diet. And the best part is that it's super easy to use! No food diaries or calorie counting. The simpler, the better.
The DQS is a simple points system. You count positive points when you eat high-quality foods and you count negative points when you eat low-quality foods. At the end of the day you end up with a number that represents the overall "quality" of your diet for that day. I find this method appealing, because it unlocks the competitive nature within athletes. The athlete inside me always wants to beat yesterdays DQS score or never let it drop below a certain number. And this helps me to stay motivated and on track with a high-quality diet.
There is also a mobile app available for only $2 on the app store which I've been using for a while now and find really easy to use on a daily basis. I typically wait until the end of the day to log all my scores so I don't get mixed up and accidentally double count meals. I'll walk you through one of my daily DQS entries later.
High Quality Foods
The DQS system is fairly straight forward and simple, especially if you use the app because it will automatically total up all your scores each day and keep track of your DQS on a graph. The hard part of the system, however, is figuring out exactly how to categorize all the foods you consume. Eating a banana is pretty simple, that's one serving of fruit. But what do you do when you eat a supreme pizza or a chicken tortilla soup?
The following excerpt from Racing Weight explains the general guidelines when categorizing foods as high or low quality:
"Quality is a function of three specific attributes of a food type: naturalness, calorie density and nutrient density. Of these, naturalness is the most important. Naturalness refers to the relative 'wholeness' of a specific food. Foods are more whole when they are less processed or modified from their natural state." -Matt Fitzgerald
Before I left for college I was fortunate enough to have my coach take me to a grocery store and show me how to shop. He taught me to map out my trip in the grocery. He said only shop the perimeter of the store and avoid the aisles at all costs. If I did need to go down an aisle, it was only for food that was already on my shopping list. What this did was focus my shopping on natural sources of food by sending me through the produce, meat and dairy sections while avoiding almost all processed foods that are in the aisles. This also prevents from just mindlessly wandering down each aisle and adding random processed foods like Oreos and Sprite into my cart. Now when I go to the grocery store, I'm on a mission.
Here is a list of the 6 high-quality categories and descriptions of the foods included in each:
FRUITS: Whole fresh fruits, canned and frozen fruits and 100% fruit juices.
VEGETABLES: Whole, fresh vegetables eaten cooked or raw, canned and frozen vegetables, and pureed or liquefied vegetables used in soups, sauces and such.
LEAN MEATS & FISH: All types of fish and meats that are 10% fat or less. Examples: Beef tenderloin, water-packed tuna, skinless chicken breasts, wild-caught fish, extra-lean ground beef, extra-lean ground turkey, London broil, lean roast beef, turkey breast, leg of lamb and pork tenderloins.
NUTS & SEEDS: All commonly eaten varieties of nuts and seeds as well as natural nut butters without added sugars.
WHOLE GRAINS: Brown rice, and breakfast cereals, breads and pastas made with 100% whole grains.
DAIRY: All forms of dairy, including whole milk products. Whole milk dairy is less processed and just tastes a lot better. Dairy foods that contain added sugar, like ice cream, should be double-counted as dairy foods and sweets.
Low Quality Foods
These are the foods we tend to love the most. My precious donuts are unfortunately a low quality food because they aren't natural, they aren't nutrient dense and they have a ton of calories. Remember, the quality of foods depends on the naturalness, nutrient density and calorie density.
Here is a list of the 4 low-quality categories of the DQS and descriptions of the foods in each:
REFINED GRAINS: White rice, processed flours, and all breakfast cereals, pastas, breads and other baked goods made with less than 100% whole grains.
SWEETS: All foods and beverages containing large amounts of refined sugars, including soft drinks, candy, pastries and other desserts. If you're unsure about whether a certain food or beverage should be counted as a sweet, use the second-ingredient rule: If any type of refined sugar is listed as the first or second ingredient, it's a sweet.
FRIED FOODS: All deep fried foods such as potato chips, fried chicken, fried meats, and donuts.
FATTY PROTEINS: Meats containing more than 10% fat as well as farm-raised fish. Examples: bacon, beef ribs, bologna and most other cold cuts, tuna packed in oil, chicken with skin, regular ground beef, regular ground turkey, farm-raised fish, ham, most cuts of lamb, prime cut beef, pork chops, pork ribs, rib eye steaks, salami, most sausages, T-bone steaks and veal.
Even with the 10 categories of high and low quality foods listed above we are still missing a few common foods. Here are some of those random categories and how to handle them:
COMBINATION FOODS: Score all the different parts of the food. Example: For a couple slices of pepperoni pizza you would count the crust as a refined grain, the sauce as half a vegetable, the cheese as a dairy and the pepperoni as a fatty protein.
SAUCES & CONDIMENTS: If used sparingly on high-quality foods then don't count, but if you're smothering your meat in BBQ sauce or dipping fries in ketchup then add it to the "Other" section for a score of -1. However, some foods in this category are actually high-quality. For example: guacamole is made mostly of vegetables so add it as a vegetable.
ALCOHOL, COFFEE & TEA: Your first serving of alcohol does not need to be counted, but the 2nd serving and beyond are -2 points. Coffee and tea should not be counted, unless there are a lot of added sugars and syrups added, which would then be a -1 or -2 depending on the size.
ERGOGENIC AIDS: This includes all food eaten while training. The DQS rules are ignored during exercise. Anything that is going to improve your performance in training should not be counted as a negative. We often find ourselves snacking on Clif Bars outside of rides and these types of snacks should be counted as followed: first serving is +1, second serving is -1 and additional servings are -2.
Putting It All Together
Now that we've laid out the DQS system and you should have a fairly good idea of how it all works, lets look at a few examples so you can see how it all fits together. Here is a list of 3 different DQS entries: low quality, moderate quality and high quality diets and their daily total DQS at the bottom.
You can really see the effects of low-quality foods by how quickly they can cancel out high-quality foods and end you up with a poor to moderate score. Avoiding low-quality items and even replacing them with high-quality foods will quickly change your score to a higher number.
Here are few screenshots of my DQS mobile app to show you how it works:
This is what the app look like in the App Store.
Whole Grain Bagel - Whole Grains
Almond Butter - Nuts & Seeds
Nutella - Sweets
Orange Juice - Fruit
Banana - Fruit
Coffee - Do not count
Homemade Mashed Potatoes - Vegetables
Mixed Vegetables - Vegetables
Whole Grain Bread - Whole Grains
Turkey Meat - HQ Meat
Cheese - Dairy
Mayo - Other (cut-off, but at bottom of chart)
Lightly Sweetened Tea - Do not count
90% Lean Ground Beef - HQ Meat
Beans - 2 servings of vegetables
Crackers - Refined Grains
V8 100% Juice - HQ Beverage
TOTAL DQS SCORE: 20 (Top right-hand corner)
No calorie counting. No grams per micronutrient. No nutrition diary. No food scale. Are these things important. Yes. Do they have a time and place. Yes. And we'll get there. But when it comes to overall diet quality, just keep it simple.
This is only the first step of the 6-step Racing Weight plan, but this is the most important one of them all. If you only take away one thing from this series, let it be this: the best way to improve your diet and move towards your optimal performance weight is by replacing low-quality foods with high-quality foods.
Next Step: Managing your appetite.