Diet is the most important aspect of fitness and it is something you must focus on if you want to make changes to your body. Study after study has shown that when it comes down to it, if you don’t change your diet, you don’t change your body. 80% of body change comes from diet alone and only 20% from exercise. Put another way, if you work out 5 days a week for one hour at a time, you’ve spent less than 3% of your week in the gym. It’s the other 163 hours outside that are important because those hours need to support the hard work you’re going through.
Basically, if you want to look good, you have to eat well. Personally, I recommend a “paleo” style diet to most people; high protein, extremely high vegetables, some fats and low carbs. I try not to get too dogmatic about it because when it comes down to it, if you eat less, you lose weight. But, there are a few things that are simply unavoidable.
There are 3 phases we need to focus on if you are trying to eat healthier, change the way you look, and overall improve your nutrition, health and lifestyle. Make sure you have each phase down and have spent a month to a few weeks getting it right and consistent before you focus on the next phase and in 3+ months you will be a totally different person with a totally improved lifestyle without stressing or feeling like you are following a diet. Can you just picture a completely new you in just a few months? It’s completely possible if you follow these steps.
Phase 1: Focus only on eating quality whole food sources when you are hungry and stop when you are full.
If that seems really simple, that’s because it is! It’s not the little, extraordinary things that allow everyday people to look and feel great. The mom with the incredible body doing zumba, the ripped guy doing kettlebell swings in the cardio room? They’re no more special than you or I and they’re not doing crazy things to look as good as they do. The only thing they’re doing that you’re not is maintaining consistency.
It’s the little things done consistently that separate the successful and the unsuccessful. Focus on real, whole foods, foods that must be eaten or go bad, and you will see and feel the changes in your body.
I think everyone here is pretty intelligent and understands what I mean by whole foods, but some examples are chicken, kale, cucumbers, spinach, beef, potatoes, corn, etc. Stuff that doesn’t store indefinitely in your cupboard! To put it into another perspective, you should mostly shop around the “outside” of a supermarket. The outside has vegetables, meat, dairy, etc. All the stuff that goes bad after a short while. The “inside” isles have the Fruit Loops, Corn Chips, Tastykakes, etc. All the stuff that has an expiration date of 10 years after the sun burns out.
A freaking fantastic way to help plan out your meals, avoid the hassle of supermarket shopping and, most importantly, avoid the temptation of making impulse buys is to do your food shopping online. Abby and I have used FreshDirect.com in the past and have recently switched to Giant’s Peapod service because our Giant card helps us save money. Personally, I believe the selection at Fresh Direct is better but Peapod has great prices and they even text/email you when they’re close and when they arrive with the delivery.
These tips should help you eat better immediately. When you’ve been consistently eating whole foods for most of the time for about 4-6 weeks, it’s time to move to Phase 2
Phase 2: START A FOOD JOURNAL!
A food journal is absolutely necessary to burning fat. Food logs help you keep better accountability for yourself and what you’re eating. Imagine how you feel writing in your journal “8oz sirloin, 2 cups broccoli, 1/2 avocado” vs. “2 slices pizza, 1 can Pepsi.” I bet you just winced a little just from reading it, didn’t you?
The reason that food logs are so necessary is because people almost always underestimate how many calories they’re eating every day; sometimes almost as much as 30%-40%! If you have no idea how many calories you’re eating, you’re more than likely eating too many to consistently lose weight.
Either buy one at the store or go to MyFitnessPal.com and sign up for a new account. It doesn’t matter which route you go; the only thing that matters is which one are you more likely to maintain? Personally I prefer My Fitness Pal because they have an app for smart phones and I always have my phone with me.
This leads me to calories; how the heck am I supposed to know how much food should I be eating?! Well, you could try myfitnesspal’s calculator, but I don’t think it’s that great, to be honest. It can’t really take into account your specific needs, which is why I strongly recommend using MacronutrientCalculator.com. A person who is 40+ pounds overweight can stand to cut out more calories than a person that wants to lose a few pounds. With their calculator, you can aim to lose 2lbs a week, the max really recommended, down to .5lbs a week, which allows that person who is fairly close to their goal weight to lose weight while avoiding starving themselves.
You want about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This will generally be around the 25%-30% mark on MacronutrientCalculator.com.
There are a few reasons you want this much protein. First, eating a lot of protein helps keep you feeling full longer. Since most of us are trying to lose weight, we are trying to reduce calories but there is no sense in starving ourselves. High protein helps derail those hunger problems before they become an issue.
Second, protein helps our body grow lean muscle tissue (even you, ladies!). This is good because more muscle means we have a higher metabolism naturally. Meaning we can eat more food and not gain weight. Think of it as a buffer, too. When you have more lean muscle mass, your body is a little more forgiving when you do pig out. Make family and friends feel envious as you pack away food during the holidays and still look good!
Finally, by hitting your protein needs for the day, you start to naturally eat the amount of calories that your body needs.
It’s impossible to get too many vegetables. The “best” are green, leafy like kale, spinach, collard greens, etc. but all vegetables are good for you. Plan every meal around a protein and veggies. Fresh is technically better than frozen or canned but who cares? I’ll repeat this often: there’s the ideal world where we eat perfectly and do everything we’re supposed to every single time and there’s the real world where we make do with what we’ve got.
If in doubt, EAT MORE VEGETABLES!
Fats don’t make you fat; overeating does. Fats are great and necessary for our body to remain healthy. Plus, adding fats to your meals helps slow down digestion and keeps you feeling full for longer, just like protein. Just look back to the low fat fad in the 80’s and 90′s…America has gotten bigger than ever!
Even though there was little evidence at the time, the low-fat diet has actually been thoroughly studied in the past few years and decades.
It was put to the test in the biggest controlled trial in nutrition history, the Women’s Health Initiative. In this study, 48,835 postmenopausal women were split into two groups. One group ate a low-fat diet (with the whole grains and all that) while the other group continued to eat “normally.” After a period of 7.5-8 years, the low-fat group weighed only 0.4 kg (1 lb) less than the control group and there was no difference in the rate of heart disease or cancer between groups. Other huge studies also found no advantages for the low-fat diet.
So we have protein keeping us feeling full and building sexy muscle tone and now we have fat slowing down our digestion and keeping us from eating too much food. Between these two we have a very potent combination to help force your body to shed the pounds. In MacronutrientCalculator.com, keep fats anywhere from 20%-30%.
When I say carbs, I’m referring to starches; things like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, etc. Carbs in vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and the like don’t really count and I wouldn’t stress about them. Now when it comes to carbs, most people usually have a lot of success changing their bodies by completely cutting out bread and pasta. When I said before overeating makes you fat, I meant it. Carbs are awesome at making you fat because it’s incredibly easy to overindulge not realize it.
Think about this; 1 plain bagel is about 300-400 calories. That’s also about 1 to 1.5 cups of pasta, 1 medium to large sized pancake or about 1 cup of rice. It’s not too much a stretch to say most people could eat any one of those on a normal day in one sitting. Now compare that to 14 cups of broccoli, 55 cups of spinach, 3 chicken breasts or an 8oz steak. Which ones are going to make you feel full for longer? How often have you shrugged your shoulders and had that bagel because, why not? Or maybe you got 3 pancakes instead of just 2. Do you think you could just shrug your shoulders and eat those 14 cups of broccoli? How about having an extra 55 cups of spinach?
So hopefully you understand a little better what I’m talking about now. Again, breads, pastas and other “prepackaged” or processed items are going to be the biggest culprits here and I strongly, strongly encourage you to cut them out of your diet for the most part. Dinner with friends isn’t going to kill you or cause you to gain all your weight back; just avoid for the most part.
Now “natural” carbs like potatoes, rice, beets, beans, etc are good for you and aren’t as bad as breads and the like. Things like oatmeal are OK too especially since it’s a generally good grain and is very easy to make in the morning.
This is leading me to Phase 3, however! At this phase, just focus on getting the correct amounts daily. Again don’t worry about when you are getting protein, fats, or carbs in, just make sure by the end of the day you have hit your numbers. Do this for 4-6 weeks and you are used to eating enough quality whole foods in the right amounts.
Phase 3: Carb Timing/Meal Timing
Carb timing, carb cycling and other advanced diet tricks are just that; advanced! This is stuff that you shouldn’t even bother with until you get through the first phases because it’s pointless to worry about the advanced stuff when you haven’t mastered the basics. It would be like teaching a 1st grader calculus; how can they be expected to do it when they don’t even know how to multiply?
However, once you are used to eating the correct amounts of quality whole food sources, then you can focus on eating the correct ratios at the correct time of day. i.e. protein + fats for most meals, and protein + carbs around the times before and after you work out and at night. I urge you to rethink having carbs at breakfast and opt for protein, fats and even vegetables instead. This is because carbs are essentially sugar when they’re broken down in the body. When your body processes sugar, it releases insulin and this is a great thing because too much sugar in the bloodstream causes fun side effects like poor circulation, blindness and death.
Insulin = Good. Check
However, when the body releases insulin in response to carbs in our body, our growth hormone and testosterone (even you, ladies) levels drop as a result of this. This is not so good because the two of those keep our metabolism and fat burning levels high. By not ingesting any carbs (or sugar for that matter) until later on in the day(after 4PM-ish), we get a little extra fat burning effect, keep our blood sugar levels steady and become less insulin resistant, meaning when we do eat carbs, our body absorbs them more readily rather than storing them as fat. This isn’t a deal breaker if you want your oatmeal in the morning, but it is something to think about.
Something else to think about with carbs is eating them right after a workout for similar reasons as waiting until 4PM. When your muscles need energy, they use what’s called glycogen. Glycogen is basically just carbs that get stored in your muscles to be used when needed; when we lift weights, our muscles use up that stored glycogen to get through our workouts. On top of that, lifting weights (you’re lifting weights, right?) creates microscopic tears in your muscles. Trust me; we want that to happen for two reasons. The first is it takes a lot of calories to repair those tears. The second is that since our body doesn’t want those tears to happen again, it responds by building more lean muscle tissue and stronger muscles, so now our metabolism has increased.
So now we’ve put our body in a state that is primed to accept carbs readily and put them to good use rather than storing them as fat. Our muscles have used up all their glycogen stores so they need to convert carbs into glycogen to refill them. Also, our muscles need to repair all those microscopic tears created from lifting the weights which takes a lot of calories. Introducing carbs now is good because, as I said, they’re more likely to be put to “good use” rather than just getting stored as fat. Ideally, you wouldn’t have any carbs during the day, would work out around 4PM and have a big dinner around 5 or 6 while having all your carbs then. Again, real world vs. ideal world comes into play here. When it comes down to it, ideal is great, but it’s not going to make a humongous difference at the end of the day. The only thing that makes the difference is if you keep doing what needs to be done by staying consistent with your diet and workouts.
By the time you complete phase 3, you will not only have a totally different lifestyle change, but you will look and feel way better and your training will improve greatly as well.
Don’t over think things and if you have the patience to follow these phases and stick with each one for a few weeks until it becomes a habit the chances of you going back to your old eating habits or not getting results are basically null. Follow through with this plan and you will not believe how different your body has become!
As far as general meal times, you may have heard that you need to eat 5-6 times a day to “keep your metabolism high” or other such reasoning.
This is pure crap.
Plenty of studies show that you will burn the same amount of calories no matter if you eat 1 meal or 6 meals. If you like eating 6 meals a day, more power to you. If you want to eat once, that’s fine too. Just aim to hit your protein intake every day, eat some carbs + protein after your workout and you should be fine.
Cheat Day. Once a week, no rules. This helps boost your metabolism and keeps it from stagnating as well as gives you a mental break so you can actually enjoy life. DO NOT record these in your food journal and go enjoy yourself.
Other stuff like fruits, booze, sauces, etc. This catch all category is stuff I might have forgotten as well as stuff that isn’t too big a deal. Moderation is the word. Fruit is fine, wine with dinner during the week isn’t a huge deal and BBQ sauce on your chicken isn’t going to end the world; anyone that says they only eat chicken with some lemon squeezed on top is either lying or crazy.
I’ll end with two notes. The first is this is the real world. If I have to choose between happy hour with friends or going home for the night, the decision is based on how tired I am (or how small my bank account is), not out off of fear that I’ll mess up my diet or guilt that I want to indulge. You should do the same. If you make life too restrictive, what is there left to enjoy? Now this is not free reign to go out and eat every night of the week! Just be sensible about it. You’ll backslide; we all do. You’ll also make great progress too, even if it’s just saying no to cake at the third office birthday party of the week, so be proud of that. Basically, we’re normal people. Focus on the broad picture first. Athletes pushing their body to the limits are the ones who need to focus on the small stuff.
Finally, this is a lifestyle we’re developing here, not a short term “diet.” Dieting leads to reducing calories in a mad attempt to drop to some arbitrary weight. And what happens is those people almost always gain all their weight back because they A.) haven’t taken the time to change their habits B.) they’re doing something completely unsustainable since their body will either force them to eat out of starvation or they’ll subconsciously rebel and sabotage themselves C.) Most importantly, they’ve deprived their body of food and the body responds by breaking down muscle tissue. This is the most damaging; the body doesn’t know there’s a supermarket down the street. It just “knows” that you’ve reduced calories and it had better slow down your metabolism so you don’t starve to death. Since muscle takes an incredible amount of calories and energy to maintain, that is usually the first thing to go.
This also why I dislike traditional cardio so much. In a very similar manner, the body wants to stay efficient because at this new level of exercise, you’re wasting a lot of energy with unused muscle, so it drops the muscle mass so it doesn’t starve. Now you have this vicious circle that people go down; they cut calories and start hitting the elliptical. And they lose weight, but not necessarily fat. But then the weight loss stops, so they drop more calories and do even more cardio. Down and down the hole they go until they give up because to keep moving forward with their weight loss, they’ll be eating 500 calories a day and working out for 3 hours.
Focus on whole foods, get lots of protein and veggies, drop the bread and pasta and you’ll do fine.