I wish it were more complicated. I’d seem a lot smarter. This is the go-to line I use on clients every time the topic of nutrition comes up. Hell, I use it on my Aunt Miriam when discussing nutrition at the Thanksgiving table. But my Aunt has known me since I’m zero years old so she just eats her pecan pie and tells me I don’t know shit. Hopefully you don’t feel the same way. Because what I am about to share with you will save you hundreds of dollars on diet books and the thousands of bruises you probably already have from banging your head against the wall trying to determine which diet is best for you. Because [SPOILER ALERT] none of them are.
The Problem With Diets
If you read our blog post on goal setting, you already know that I am not a fan of finite solutions to infinite problems. And that is exactly how you are trying to solve your nutrition problem when you go on a diet. Diets are designed to be followed for a specific amount of time – you get in, get some results and get out. This is a perfect solution for bodybuilders who are peaking for the stage or weight-class athletes who need to be a specific weight for competition. But for the rest of us who are trying to improve health and body composition, a diet is a recipe for absolute disaster. Because once you’ve manipulated your metabolism you usually set yourself up for a bad rebound when the diet is over. A great example of this is the contestants on the show “The Biggest Loser”. They all achieve remarkable weight loss in an extremely short time period. It’s impressive to watch. Equally as intriguing, if less publicized, is the fact that nearly all the contestants return to their pre-show weight (if not heavier) within a year of the conclusion of the show.
Even though you may not have as much weight to drop as a Biggest Loser contestant you still do not want to meet their same fate. Stop following diets and simply adopt the principle(s) below. By doing so you set yourself up for steady fat loss and long-term success. And I realize that isn’t as sexy as a Hydroxycut commercial or as intriguing as watching Jillian Michaels shamelessly hawking whatever product paid for placement on the show (Subway sandwiches? Really, Jillian?), but it will work. And you should be a fan of what works.
I Got Abs With This One Cool Trick
By now you’ve all seen these “click bait” ads that promise “one cool trick” to losing weight or getting abs or scoring chicks. And if you’ve click on these ads you’ve learned that the one cool trick is just a supplement that may or may not contain crushed up ants and traces of Viagra.
Luckily I am here to actually give you one cool trick to losing body fat (which may give you visible abs which, in turn, may possibly help you score with very shallow women). And that trick is the principle of prioritizing food quality over everything else in your nutrition plan.
By quality I am really referring to food type a bit more than actual food quality but both come into play. To put it as simply as possible, if you focus on eating good quality, nutrient-dense food while avoiding shitty, processed crap you will take enormous strides towards getting the physique you want. And as a side effect you will also have a diet that promotes health.
Specifically, your entire diet should be made up of lean meats, quality fish, a variety of vegetables, a few starches/grains, a healthy mix of fats, some fruits, copious amounts of water and that is about it. Should your meats and produce be well-sourced, fresh and of high quality? Absolutely. And, no, I’m not going to list every food that you should and shouldn’t eat. Because you already know what those are. You know that lean beef and pork, salmon and broccoli, sweet potatoes and avocados, blueberries and raw almonds are the things you should be eating. And that the alcohol, donuts, those few last bites of your kid’s chicken fingers and that “once-maybe-twice-per-week bowl of pasta” are not.
I realize this common-sense approach isn’t sexy. And some would certainly argue that food quality should not be the number one priority and would possibly list one of the other considerations below as being more valuable. But I assert that if you hack the quality aspect of nutrition, nearly everything else either happens automatically or becomes irrelevant. Let’s explore.
What I Learned About Nutrition At Summer Camp
If you’ve ever gone to Summer camp or have kids that have gone you will notice that nearly each child comes back skinnier than when they left. This could be due to a combination of factors (increased activity and exercise, hormonal changes) but almost certainly one of the key reasons is just the lack of food availability. There are no kitchen pantries to easily wander into for a snack at camp. And those care packages don’t cover a fraction of the amount of snacks that kids will eat when they are in the comforts of home.
It’s easy to see from this example or others like it (say, a trip overseas where foods are unappealing and unfamiliar) that calorie restriction or reduction does have a positive effect on weight and fat loss. In fact it’s one of the key principles of energy balance theory. But there are three pitfalls with following a calorie restriction plan. First, if you are eating the right foods, getting an accurate nutrition count is quite tough. It’s very easy to determine how many calories are in a Triscuit. They are perfectly engineered in a factory and everyone is exactly the same. However if you are eating natural “quality” foods, calorie counts can vary based on several factors. And considering that calorie restriction diets usually prescribe a slight caloric deficit per day, these variances are not insignificant.
Secondly, calorie counting is tedious. If I’m following the “food quality” approach and my plate is filled with halibut, asparagus and quinoa I’ve achieved the objective – I’m eating quality, nutrient-dense foods. If I have to break out the food scale, a calculator and a fitness app in order to determine the calorie count of the same meal – I’m just annoyed. And as tedious as it is do once, it’s not sustainable for most people to do over and over.
Lastly, is the issue of efficiency. If you train your body to run on fewer calories it will also burn fewer calories while performing the same tasks. This leads to an endless cycle of caloric reduction to maintain weight and fat loss. In other words, you have to continually eat less and less to continue to progress. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t cranky on 900 calories per day.
The nice thing about prioritizing food quality and type is that, to a huge extent, the calorie problem somewhat solves itself. It’s very hard to get an overload of calories when you are scarfing down carrots and apples. It’s probably why you never see a fat horse.
With all that being said, calorie monitoring will certainly work if you are willing to put in the effort and have a solid strategy that does not involve merely reducing your calories every time you plateau. But I’m a proponent of the simplest solution, and calorie counting is not simple nor always practical.
The Best of The Rest
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far. Food quality/type is king when it comes to long-term fat loss strategies. Make sure every meal only features nutrient-dense, high quality foods and your body and waistline will be happy. Calorie restriction certainly works but has a few executional difficulties that require more effort than most people are willing to maintain. It also can be a slippery slope of needing to eat less and less foods just to continue progress. Going the quality/type route, particularly in people who have not been paying attention to nutrition very much, will also impact daily calories in that these types of foods are usually not calorically dense.
But what about other popular strategies that “experts” on Facebook rave about? Some have merit but are rife with pitfalls. Let’s examine two such approaches.
Macronutrient Ratios: Macronutrients (or Macros) is a fancy way of saying Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats. Diets such as “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) and “The Zone Diet” assign you a certain ratio of macronutrients per day and allow you to have any type of food as long as those number of macros are met for the day. Want to get your carbohydrates for the day from donuts? No problem, just as long as you don’t go over your prescribed number of carbs. The Zone famously claimed that a McDonald’s cheeseburger was the perfect choice because it had the ideal protein to carb to fat ratio.
Have people had success with these types of diets? Yes! In fact I think this has become one of the most popular strategies over the past few years. But the problems are self evident. First, counting macros is more tedious and less exacting than counting calories. Secondly, getting your macronutrient requirement from shitty foods is not healthful. And no matter how much you want to lose weight and do so while getting in your weekly dose of Yodels, you should never do so at the risk of the health of your system.
Nutrient Timing: The step-brother of macronutrient ratio diets, nutrient timing has you eating certain macros at specific times. Popular diets such as Carb Backloading and Intermittent Fasting rely on nutrient timing. Even the classic “don’t eat after 6PM” is in essence a nutrient timing approach. The issue with these strategies is that they may just be calorie restriction diets in disguise. If you are relegated to only eating carbohydrates between the hours of 2PM and 6PM or not eating at all for 16 hours at a time, chances are you are just eating less overall. You’ve simply managed to bake in some rules to make that happen.
There is seemingly some validity to nutrient timing as it relates to post-workout nutrition including carbohydrates in order to replenish muscle glucose and improve recovery. But this is less of a diet strategy and more of a way to optimize muscle recovery between exercise bouts. Observationally, I’ve seen this have a really beneficial effect but even this strategy has it’s detractors.
The 100 Day Challenge
We can poke holes in diet strategies and nutritional myths all day. But I’d rather give you an actionable plan that will deliver the results you are looking for. For the next 100 days, follow the nutrient quality/type plan. Simply eat high quality foods for every meal without exception. No other rules about meal timing, number of meals per day, how many hours between meals apply. You can keep an eye on quantities so they don’t get out of control but don’t stress about it either. It’s that simple. But I know you want to make it complicated so here is your FAQ answered below.
Q: When you say “100 Days” and “without exception” you still mean that I can have a cheat meal per week, right?
A: No. This is 100 days of absolute compliance. No cheats. No work arounds.
Q: But I’ve read a lot about how willpower is finite and that I shouldn’t restrict myself or my cravings will increase.
A: Listen, I’m not saying that isn’t true. Nor am I saying that 100 days of compliance isn’t really challenging. Undoubtedly it is. But it’s not impossible. I’ve done it myself. And for a lot longer than 100 days. And so have a lot of other people I know. There are a lot of people doing a lot harder things right now than not eating cupcakes for 3 months. Get some perspective.
Q: Well now you just sound mean.
A: This approach is simple, not easy. If you give yourself room to falter you will not get the results you want. And for most of you, spending 100 days eating nutrient-dense foods will reward you in many, many ways. Consider all the time you’ve spent trying different nutritional hacks only to end up disappointed and frustrated. It’s probably added up to a lot more than 100 days.
Pick a day and simply start. Yes, the first few days will be difficult. You may develop a headache. You’ll certainly have cravings. But something almost magical happens if you can survive the first 72 hours or so. You almost get euphoric. And your body will reward you with treating it so well by looking more like you want it to look. You are also likely to see your health markers greatly improve.
Nutrition can actually be a complicated and fascinating subject. Certainly one that is worthy of more than 2207 words. But nutrition in relation to body composition is actually quite simple. Spend the next 100 days not eating any bullshit and your body composition has no choice but to improve.
Take that, Aunt Miriam.