The Food Rules I Follow as a Nutrition Expert

by JJ Virgin on June 25, 2024

The most common questions I’m asked as a nutrition expert are: What do you eat? And what do you eat when you cheat?

The truth is—I don’t cheat. I’m going to share the food rules I follow that help keep me on track towards my goals. It sounds counterintuitive, but this kind of structure can create freedom and flexibility when you have clear guidelines. 

With that in mind, these eight core principles shape my daily food choices to optimize muscle and bone health, balance hormones and blood-sugar levels, and give me the nutrients I need to age powerfully. 

Rule 1: Eat Protein First

Prioritizing protein at the start of your meals will change the game for your cravings, energy, weight, and more. Protein helps stabilize blood-sugar levels, preventing rapid spikes and crashes that lead to cravings and energy fluctuations.1 Its amino acids also help build and maintain strong muscle and bones.2 

Protein has a higher thermic effect than carbohydrates and fats as well, meaning your body uses more energy to digest and metabolize protein. This greatly impacts your metabolic rate and weight management.3

Focusing on adequate protein intake in each meal can also make you feel fuller more quickly. There is a concept called the protein leverage hypothesis that argues you will continue to eat food until you meet your protein needs. In other words, you can overeat carbs and fat when you don’t get enough protein because your body is seeking to get enough protein.4

To stay healthy, I recommend a minimum of 30 grams of protein at each meal, and at least 100 grams per day

To determine your personal needs, check out my protein calculator. I’ll also send you my free 7-Day Eat Protein First Challenge which includes a handy guide and recipes to show you just how easy it can be to meet your protein intake every day.

Opt for high-quality protein sources like chicken, salmon, wild fish, seafood, grass-fed beef, and lamb to meet your daily requirements. 

Rule 2: Eat Non-Starchy Vegetables Second

After protein, fill your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Leafy and cruciferous vegetables provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols. They add fiber to your meals, helping you feel satisfied, supporting gut health, and providing the nutrients your body needs to thrive. 

One study found that just a daily serving of green leafy vegetables could slow brain decline with aging.5 I want you to aim higher, with a minimum of five servings daily (and 10 or more is even better). One serving is 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked vegetables. My favorites include: 

  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Deep green leafy vegetables (like arugula)
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Asparagus
  • Peppers

I also try to incorporate fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, which have probiotics for gut health and a strong immune system. They enhance nutrient absorption, help you keep a healthy gut microbiome (those trillions of bacteria that keep your gut functioning well), and support digestion.6 

Rule 3: Enjoy Lower-Sugar Fruits

Fruit comes loaded with antioxidants and nutrients that support heart health, control blood-sugar levels, sharpen your brain, and give your skin a healthy glow.7 

I’m particularly fond of berries, which offer antioxidants called polyphenols that help fight inflammation, protect cells from damage, and even boost your immune system. Berries have other important nutrients like vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. Vitamin C is excellent for your immune system and skin health, while fiber keeps your digestion running smoothly (super important for hormone balance if you’re experiencing perimenopause symptoms).8

Blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are excellent choices. However, you might also choose other lower-sugar options like apples or unripe bananas (I like to add those to my loaded smoothies). 

Unlike non-starchy veggies, more is not better with fruit. Due to its natural sweetness, fruit is prone to overconsumption, resulting in excessive sugar intake and potential adverse health effects. Keep your intake to no more than 2 servings daily (about 1 cup per serving). 

Rule 4: Eat Slow, Low Carbs

Carbohydrates encompass a wide range of foods, including fruits, vegetables, and legumes, but what sets apart the different types of carbs is their impact on blood sugar. 

Vegetables and low-sugar fruits like berries are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and have a lower glycemic index, causing a slower, more gradual increase in blood sugar. In contrast, sugary processed carbs like granola or wheat bread (foods that some people think are still healthy!) are often low in essential nutrients and high in simple sugars, leading to quick blood-sugar spikes and fewer long-term health benefits.

Another way to look at carbs is fast and slow (or simple and complex, respectively). Fast-digesting carbs, like those in bread and white rice, are quickly absorbed, causing spikes in blood sugar and insulin. These spikes are followed by energy crashes, triggering increased hunger and cravings for sugary foods. Such carbohydrates often lack fiber and essential nutrients, making it challenging to maintain stable blood sugar, weight, and energy.

Complex or slow-digesting carbs, on the other hand, have the opposite effect: they reduce cravings, stabilize blood sugar, and provide a steadier release of energy.9 These slow, low carbs (as I call them) also support sleep by managing cortisol levels.10 

Some of my favorites include lentils and other legumes, wild rice, winter squashes, and root vegetables like beets. Aim for 0 to 2 servings of these slow, low carbs at every meal, with each serving roughly equating to 100 calories. 

How many carbs should you get daily? Aim for around 50-130 grams of carbs total a day.

Overall, don’t be afraid of carbs! Just choose smart sources. Remember, you’re earning your carbs, especially if you’re consistently doing resistance training. Just get those carbs from foods as close to nature as possible: non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits, and slow low carbs.

Rule 5: Get 50 Grams of Fiber

Fiber is key for regularity in the bathroom and your overall digestive health. It also assists in weight management, regulates cholesterol levels, and stabilizes blood sugar. A high-fiber diet nurtures a healthy gut microbiome, keeps you full and satisfied, helps normalize cholesterol levels for heart health, and more.11

Most Americans get about 15 grams of fiber daily, about half the recommended amount.12

I want you to get at least 35 grams and preferably up to 50 grams of fiber daily (do make sure to increase your daily intake slowly to avoid digestive upset). 

When you incorporate rules 2-4, you’ll easily meet that amount. My favorite fiber-packed foods include non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries (including avocado), and slow, low carbs like quinoa and sweet potatoes. 

Rule 6: Don’t Be Afraid of Fat

Decades of misguided dietary advice have led our generation to fear fat, but loads of new research proves that fat is actually your friend. Healthy fat sources help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, reduce damaging inflammation, balance mood, and promote radiant skin, among their many benefits. 

Choosing the right types of fat helps your cells function and communicate well, maintain energy levels, support a healthy brain, and more.13, 14 Smart sources include: 

  • Clean animal proteins such as grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon
  • Extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil
  • Ghee
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Flax and chia seeds

I’m also a big fan of unsweetened yogurt and kefir. These fermented dairy products come packed with probiotics that support gut health. If you’re dairy intolerant, look for unsweetened coconut yogurt. 

Aim for 2-4 servings of these healthy fats per meal, with each serving around 100 calories. Incorporating these fats makes your meals more satisfying, fills you up faster, maintains your energy for longer, and keeps your metabolism steady so you burn fat better.

Rule 7: Drink Plenty of Water

When it comes to smart food choices, it’s not just about what you eat. You also want to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can impede your efforts to stay healthy—and by the time you feel thirsty, you’re likely already dehydrated. 

Even mild dehydration (as little as 1%) can have an impact, including raising cortisol levels.15  Dehydration can also trigger your body to convert glucose into fructose. Your body stores this fructose as fat, which is the opposite of what you want for maintaining a healthy weight.16

Drinking optimal amounts of water, on the other hand, can boost your metabolism as much as 30% for 30 minutes.17 Increasing your metabolic rate helps increase calorie burning and enhances your body’s efficiency in converting nutrients into energy.

Aim to drink half an ounce of clean, filtered water per pound of body weight daily, adjusting for exercise.18 A good rule of thumb is to drink an extra 0.5 to 1 ounce of water for every minute of training. This helps replace fluids lost through sweating, which supports performance and recovery.

Staying well-hydrated supports strength and endurance during workouts as well. It also boosts brain health, improving focus, memory, and mood. 

For digestive health, water prevents constipation and maintains a healthy gastrointestinal tract. And a healthy gut gives you healthy skin; hydration keeps your skin elastic and vibrant. 

Optimal water intake is also crucial for kidney function, helping to filter waste and toxins. Additionally, water aids in natural detoxification processes and helps maintain energy levels, preventing the fatigue and lethargy that come with dehydration.

Rule 8: Time Your Meals Correctly

The timing of your meals can be just as crucial as their content. An overnight fast (going 12-15 hours without eating) can help you find your healthy weight and age powerfully.19 

Fasting influences how your body handles nutrients, manages energy levels, and operates throughout the day and night. By aligning with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, intermittent fasting can boost your metabolism, help you maintain a healthy weight, and provide other benefits.20 Here’s how I approach it:

  • Break your overnight fast by 9 or 10 am: Wait 90 minutes to 2 hours after waking up before having your first meal. You’ll easily create a 12-15-hour fasting window, giving you the many benefits of intermittent fasting.
  • Aim to eat every 3-5 hours: This regular interval helps maintain steady blood sugar, supports sustained energy throughout the day, and prevents overeating by managing hunger. On the odd occasion when I can’t eat within a five-hour window, I keep protein-packed emergency foods nearby.
  • Eat within a 9-12 hour window: This supports your body’s natural circadian rhythm, aiding in better digestion, metabolism, and energy utilization.
  • Stop eating 3-4 hours before bedtime: Eating close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep cycle, affecting digestion and the quality of rest, which are vital for recovery and overall health.

Bringing Everything Together: Here’s a Sample Day

Waking up: I wake up with 16 oz water with lemon juice. I then usually have a cup of half-regular/half-decaf coffee or green tea

Breaking my overnight fast: I have a loaded smoothie by 9 or 10 a.m.

Lunch: I’ll have a salad with a variety of non-starchy vegetables and lean protein, such as this Chicken & Quinoa Macro Bowl.

Midafternoon break: I’ll sip green tea with apple cider vinegar (try my Apple Cider Vinegar Detox Tea). Both are great for steadying blood-sugar levels and keeping hunger at bay. 

Dinner: I’ll eat protein first, then non-starchy vegetables, and fill the rest of my plate with healthy fats and slow, low carbs. That might include: 

After dinner, the kitchen is closed for the evening!

The Most Effective Way to Meet Your Protein Quota

Optimal protein is the foundation for every meal. No more guessing if you’re meeting your 30-gram quota! My 7-Day Eat Protein First Challenge guarantees you’ll get the right protein with every meal. To tailor this to your needs, we’ve added a protein calculator and a comprehensive guide with advice, strategies, and a meal plan focused on increasing your protein intake effectively. 

Start experiencing the advantages of a higher-protein diet today. Claim your FREE 7-Day Eat Protein First Challenge here.


  1. Medical News Today: Foods for stabilizing insulin and blood sugar levels
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  3. Healthline: How Protein Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally 
  4. ScienceDirect:  Protein leverage affects energy intake of high-protein diets in humans 
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  7. Healthline: 11 Reasons Why Berries Are Among the Healthiest Foods on Earth
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  9. Harvard: Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar
  10. Christianson, Alan. The Adrenal Reset Diet. Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition. 
  11. Mayo Clinic: Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet
  12. UCSF Health: Increasing Fiber Intake 
  13. Healthline: The No BS Guide to Healthy Fats
  14. Psychology Today: What Are the Best Fats for Brain Health?
  15. UConn Today: Even Mild Dehydration Can Alter Mood
  16. Johnson RJ, Lanaspa MA, Sanchez-Lozada LG, Tolan D, Nakagawa T, Ishimoto T, Andres-Hernando A, Rodriguez-Iturbe B, Stenvinkel P. The fructose survival hypothesis for obesity. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2023 Sep 11;378(1885):20220230. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0230. Epub 2023 Jul 24. PMID: 37482773; PMCID: PMC10363705.
  17. Boschmann M, Steiniger J, Hille U, Tank J, Adams F, Sharma AM, Klaus S, Luft FC, Jordan J. Water-induced thermogenesis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Dec;88(12):6015-9. doi: 10.1210/jc.2003-030780. PMID: 14671205.
  18. Better Health Channel: Exercise – the low-down on hydration
  19. King’s College London: 14-hour fasting improves hunger, mood and sleep
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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. Products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern.This post contains affiliate links. That means that I may earn a commission if you make a purchase through one of these links.