A few simple techniques well presented, an aim clearly seen, are better than a tangled maze of data whirling in disorganized educational chaos. – Bruce Lee
1. Hit Targeted Numbers For Higher-Level Physique Goals
Some coaches proclaim that as long as you eat the right foods (Paleo Diet), or cut a certain macronutrient to zero (low carb or low fat), or follow a specific eating pattern (intermittent fasting), you don’t need to worry about anything else.
That may be fine to go from out of shape to decent shape, or for the genetically elite or drug enhanced to look awesome.
But the average, natural dude is not going to get ripped to shreds with such a free-spirited, instinctual approach. Neither is the girl who wants to turn heads with a rocking bikini bod.
We can argue over optimum dietary approaches into eternity, but consistently hitting the right calories and macronutrients will always be the most important step in achieving ANY higher-level body composition goal — fat loss, muscle gain, etc.
A) Set calories based on the physique goal first.
There are more complicated formulas, but these will give you a nice ballpark starting point. All plans will have to be tested, assessed, and refined in the real world anyways based on your progress and feedback.
- Fat Loss: 9-12 calories x bodyweight. If you are significantly overweight, use your lean body mass instead of total bodyweight.
- Maintenance/recomposition: 13-15 cals x bodyweight.
- Muscle Gain: 16-20 x bodyweight
B) Set protein at optimum levels to build or maintain lean muscle mass.
Most unbiased research has this at 1.5-2.0g/kg = 0.75-1.0g/lb of bodyweight. If you are significantly overweight, use your lean body mass instead of your total body weight.
C) Set essential fats and baseline fats to support natural hormone production.
If you are emphasizing a mix of high quality animal foods to satisfy your protein requirements — fish, poultry, beef, whole eggs, etc. — you can get all of the essential fatty acids (n-3 in fish, n-6 in poultry) and “good fats” (50% of the fat in beef is monounsaturated, 20% is stearic acid) you need as by-product of these foods. This will probably give you a ballpark baseline dietary fat intake of 0.2-0.33g/lb.
D) Eat unlimited non-starchy vegetables and 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day.
This will provide your diet with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and will improve the satiety and variety of it. I prefer juicy melons and trim seaweed. You may prefer long bananas and large grapefruits. Whatever works…
E) Fill in the remaining calories with the energy nutrients.
Regardless of our goals, we always want to provide our body with the essential nutrients and micronutrients necessary for optimum health and normal functioning. Beyond that, all other food intake is just a source of energy.
“Added fats” are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on your total calorie requirements and goals, and the composition of the rest of your diet. Starchy carbohydrates are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on the type and amount of training you do.
As you’ll see below, metabolic condition and exercise variables should be a major consideration in determining which fuel source you prioritize.
2. Optimize Food Choices for Overall Health
Every sickness comes from food. — Serge Nubret
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. — Hippocrates
I believe a lot of our most debilitating diseases — including cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type II diabetes, certain cancers, and advanced Man Boob & Muffin Top Syndrome — are a direct result of poor food choices and the overconsumption of refined and processed foods.
And if all you do care about is your physique, good food choices still help you stay within the numbers necessary to optimize body composition. They improve the calorie-to-nutrient density ratio of the diet, and also improve satiety, which will make staying in the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss a lot easier.
A) The Paleo Diet Template
This is a good template for sedentary, obese, insulin resistant, type II diabetic populations.
- Essential nutrients from animal proteins, vegetables, whole fruit.
- Added energy nutrients from whole food fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut).
B) The Traditional Japanese Village Diet
This is a good template for athletes, strength trainers, anaerobic-based exercisers.
- Essential nutrients from animal proteins, vegetables, whole fruit.
- Energy nutrients from a select few starchy carbs: root vegetables/starchy tubers (yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes) and white rice.
3. Have a Few Cheat Meals for Long-Term Sustainability
Planned cheat meals make most diet plans more realistic and sustainable, and prevent the failing/starting over again cycle. No one is going to give up the modern foods we’ve grown to love (but are so bad for us) indefinitely.
But you can’t eat them every day if you expect to get results.
If you know you don’t have to obsess about your diet and can eat whatever you want on Saturday night when out socializing, it makes it infinitely more likely that when Wednesday night comes around after a long, hard day of work, and you are having a craving for something, you can resist and stay on track.
I’m an “Eat good 90% of the time and do whatever you want 10% of the time”, long-term lifestyle guy vs. “A 100% on or 100% off”, short-term hardcore diet and rebound guy.
4. Use Whatever Diet Structure Makes Your Plan as Practical and Enjoyable as Possible
Meal frequency and food distribution is predominantly about making your diet plan as practical, sustainable, functional, and enjoyable as possible. Its about setting it up in a way to make it a lifestyle plan vs. a quick-fix diet.
Use whatever works best.
There is no one Right Way. Multiple approaches can work. Modern fitness approaches (eat 6 small meals every 2 hours, starve at night, wanting to gnaw off your significant other’s arm, etc.) can work great, as many professional fitness athletes have proven, and often write about in the magazines. I have followed such plans myself with great results.
But these plans are impractical for most in the real world, and are based more on spandex tradition rather than scientific necessity. There are equally effective alternatives.
Human beings evolved on a fasting and feeding cycle. We spent the majority of our existence fasting or eating lighter during the day while actively tracking, hunting, and gathering our food. We spent the evening relaxing and feasting on the majority, if not all, of our daily food intake.
I believe you should set up your diet in a similar way for a variety of reasons:
A) Evolutionary Instinct.
It’s our natural instinct based on thousands of years of evolution. For some odd and inexplicable reason, most diet plans work off a structure that goes completely against this (eat big during the day and then try to cut calories and carbs, and starve at night)? That’s why most diet plans don’t work off the magazine pages in the real world. They suck in terms of long-term adherence.
To give yourself the best shot at succeeding beyond a 60-day time frame, or whatever, I believe you should go with, not against, your nature.
B) Natural Social Patterns.
Socially, most of us want to eat big at night. Think about it — enjoying a meal with your family at night, going out with friends or on a date, doing business over dinner, etc.
No one wants to starve on lettuce leaves, and be preoccupied with how much their diet sucks, when they could be eating a satiating meal, and get equally good physique results.
Our brains work on a sacrifice/reward pattern. Most people find it relatively easy to cut calories and make better food choices during the day, as long as they know they can eat a larger meal at night, and get to end the day satiated and satisfied (at least in the kitchen, the bedroom is your own responsibility).
This is way more effective than large lunches that lead to rebound hypoglycemia and energy crashes, and tiny dinners that lead to starvation-induced, junk food binges.
This structure controls blood sugar and insulin levels, and optimizes the body’s ability to burn fat during the day. It then provides a concentrated anabolic period at night.
Think of it as two distinct nutritional periods. During the day hours you eat lighter so you remain in a fat burning, energy production mode (hunt mode). During the evening hours you provide your body with the raw ingredients it needs to build/maintain muscle, store energy reserves, recover from the demands of the current day, and prepare your body for the tasks of the next day (feast mode).
Or even simpler, you drive your car around all day, and fill up the tank at night.
5. Burning Questions
I can’t help you with that burning sensation. Try some Penicillin. But the questions, or more accurately, the biggest fitness nutrition myths out there.
A) Aren’t carbs the devil? Shouldn’t everyone, everywhere be eating a low-carb diet?
Not necessarily. Low carb diets are great for certain demographics — sedentary, obese, insulin resistant, etc. — thus they should be the default status for probably 70% of our population.
However, exercise creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients both during activity and for up to 48 hours after completion of a training session. If you exercise intensely 3 or more days a week, than your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time. It is in an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions 100% of the time, thus its nutritional needs are completely different than sedentary populations.
And low-carb diets combined with consistent high intensity activity can have a lot of metabolic, hormonal, and physiological drawbacks including impaired thyroid production, low testosterone and sex drive, decreases in metabolic rate, muscle loss, skinny-fat syndrome, insomnia, depression, irritability, and general foul mood.
What good is a six-pack if you have a lifeless noodle hanging between your legs (or whatever the female equivalent would be), and then you’re a big d*ck to everyone else around you because of it?
- Baba et al. 1999. High protein vs high carbohydrate hypoenergetic diet for the treatment of obese hyperinsulinemic subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord Nov;23(11):1202-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10578211
- Kimber et al. 2003. Skeletal muscle fat and carbohydrate metabolism during recovery from glycogen-depleting exercise in humans. J Physiol May 1;548(Pt 3):919-27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12651914
- McCoy et al. 1996. Skeletal muscle GLUT-4 and postexercise muscle glycogen storage in humans. J Appl Physiol Feb;80(2):411-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8929577
B) Won’t eating a big meal with carbs at night cause me to store fat? I thought we are supposed to cut calories and carbs at night to get lean?
Fitness hogwash. Eating at night doesn’t make you fat. Eating too much/too many calories makes you fat. If you’ve eaten large and/or frequent meals throughout the day, and then eat another large dinner on top of that, chances are you will overshoot your daily calorie needs and gain fat. It’s the total food intake not the distribution that is the problem.
If you eat lighter during the day and are active, chances are you enter dinner in a relatively large calorie deficit with depleted energy reserves, and even a large meal with a significant amount of carbohydrates will be used to restore energy reserves first, before spilling over into fat stores. You need to look at this recommended diet structure as an entire big picture (fast AND feast), not at isolated topics.
- Sofer et al. 2011. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity (Silver Spring) Apr 7. [Epub ahead of print]. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21475137
To learn more about the science behind this nutrition strategy, and for step-by-step dietary calculations and templates, food charts and shopping lists, targeted pre-and post-workout recommendations, and sample diets based on a variety of goals, check out: