by Joy Victoria T-Nation
We all know it. You can't out-train a bad diet. A great body is built from the consistent application of the principles most important to the goal, and a proper diet is a huge factor for losing fat and building muscle. Your training is also at the mercy of what you eat to gain muscle or lose fat.
But dieting kind of sucks.
Dieting leaves many of us frustrated and stumped about what's actually going to work once and for all. We slave away at sticking to the "rules" of a particular diet method, waiting for the promised results.
While some of us can conjure up the strict discipline to adhere to what we've been told is the only way to a ripped body, we often find that we keep failing at it despite our good intentions and repeated fresh starts. Life just gets in the way and our willpower never seems as strong from day to day as we thought it would be.
The Physique Pipe Dream
For the average trainee with a family, full schedule, and social obligations, getting lean and ripped starts to feel like a pipe dream. Everything concerning our diet becomes about sacrifice and denial. Everything starts revolving around this small percentage of our life that we can't quite get under control.
Consider an alternate strategy and by thinking about this: As long as you know the principles of what makes a diet successful, the way you set it up doesn't matter.
Choosing a combination of strategies that suit your schedule and your goals can give you exactly what you want and reduce unnecessary investment in sticking to "rules" that are giving you minimal profit and driving you crazy.
Changing your diet doesn't have to be an overwhelming overhaul of your entire life, as long as you know what to focus on. A lot of popular nutrition dogma is either unnecessary or downright wrong.
Dieting is much friendlier if you consider your personal schedule, habits, and individual needs. And that's where everything starts.
The New Rules
First, two diet "ground rules" we already know about:
1. The majority of your diet should be comprised of "whole" foods – lean proteins, grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Those are foods we often call "clean." Though clean is rather subjective, I think you get the idea. Food choices are pretty open to what has the nutrients and makes you happy.
2. The energy equation holds true – to lose fat you must burn more energy than you consume and vice versa for building muscle. When changing your body, you aim to lose fat without losing lean mass, and gain lean mass without gaining too much fat alongside it.
All the strategies below can be used in conjunction with each other or added onto other specific protocols you already use with success. Remember that the best plan in the world is useless unless you can apply it in a way that's going to keep you sane and get you results.
Consider the following:
1. Flexible Meal Timing
Hitting your total caloric needs for the day is more important than when you eat those calories. It doesn't really matter if this is eating 6 meals a day or eating 2 meals a day. It also doesn't matter exactly when, either. The majority of your calories can come later in the day, spread out over the day, or at the same times every day, as long as you're hitting your totals.
The myth of "metabolic stoking" through multiple meals every couple of hours has been firmly debunked by science. The research on the topic has grown over the years.
Bellisle et al. found that when measuring 24-hour energy expenditure, there was no difference between frequent small meals or infrequent large meals.(1)
Similarly, Verboeket-van de Venne and Westerterp compared 2 meals versus 7 meals per day, and found that again, there were no differences in energy expenditure within the 24-hour period.
During the "fasted" period, there was heightened fat oxidation because of the lack of available carbohydrates, and increased carbohydrate oxidation after the first meal. Protein oxidation showed no changes with either protocol.(2)
Your body doesn't really keep a clock on calorie intake, as long as you're meeting your needs within the 24-hour period. Your muscles will not fall off with fewer meals, and neither will your metabolism take a nose-dive. Specific meal timing is a variable you can adjust to meet your goals.
For those trying to lose fat, intermittent fasting protocols where you eat more calories in a shorter timeframe, or alternate high and low calories days, can allow you to stay in a deficit easier.
The potential benefits also include higher satiety and reduced cravings. If you struggle with tiny portions every couple hours and can hold off better if you get to eat big, being flexible with your meal sizes and when you eat them may help you stick to the diet.
Intermittent fasting methods have the distinction of being considered both the newest fad and the oldest dieting strategy known to man. The good news is that it boils down to the evidence-based principle that meal timing is flexible when caloric needs are met.
Eating six meals a day every two to three hours to "stoke the metabolism" and prevent a catabolic "starvation mode" is bull****. Your metabolism doesn't work that way. Grouping your meals together or getting all your calories in smaller time frames to fit your schedule or make adherence easier won't negatively affect your muscle gains or fat loss.
Explore meal frequency and timing flexibility and add another tool in the box to help you reach your goals. (It can also make your life much damn simpler.)
2. If It Fits Your Macros
Traditional bodybuilding diets pigeonhole you into specific foods you "have" to eat for success – the famous clean foods versus dirty foods debate: chicken, broccoli, and oats; oats, broccoli, and chicken. You might as well just blend them together and drink them. Eating out, socializing, and your daily routine can soon start to centralize around what you can and can't eat.
At a physiological level your body can't really tell the difference between "types" of food. A carb is a carb. Protein is protein. Fat is fat. Your body won't reject a nutrient because it came in a different package on the shelf. This is where "if it fits your macros comes in."
The story is that IIFYM is not a "diet setup" or style – it came from bodybuilding threads where trainees were asking whether "macaroni could be eaten on my prep." The answer? "If it fits your macros bro, go for it."
For overall health considerations, eating whole foods for the majority of your diet is a good idea. But setting up calorie and macro goals means you have the freedom to pick foods you enjoy and gives you room for some of the "dirty" foods you love. This translates into a good balance of what you want with what you need.
Making room for the foods you like through macro tracking promotes adherence and enjoyability on a diet. It also makes complete sense from a physiological and psychological point of view. Get your calories from the foods you want and still hit your goals. A life that revolves around what you can't do is not sustainable or healthy – it's also ****ing annoying.
3. Eat Your Carbs at Night
Once upon a time someone told us carbs at night will make us fat. Most likely it was Oprah, but don't quote me on that.
Guess what? You can eat carbs at night and not get fat.
In fact, some will argue that eating carbs later in the day in the post-workout window is superior to eating them at other times of the day. Here are a couple of reasons.
You can avoid night time cravings and promote dietary adherence. No more skimpy dinners while your kids gorge on pasta or your roommate is making love to a bowl of fried rice. Like to sit down to a big meal at the end of the day with your family? Do it. You can shuttle your nutrients around and eat them when it's most convenient and enjoyable to you.
Promote growth and recovery during sleep. While kind of anecdotal in theory (24-hour calorie intake is the most important factor), it can't hurt. Imagine plenty of nutrients available as your Testosterone peaks in the middle of your sleep cycle. Sleep and good nutrition fuel growth.
Eat your meals when you can eat them properly. Total calorie intake is the big denominator at the end of the day. This includes when you eat your carbs. Long work day and access to crappy food during the workday? Eat lighter during the day and bigger at night.
Eat your carbs whenever you want, and there may be merit in getting them later in the day in your post-workout meal.
4. Forget About Willpower
Talking about willpower and how you need more is overrated. Knowing your habits and how your body works is not. Trying to mentally bulldoze yourself into sticking to a diet is often a lesson in how much of a sad little bitch you really are. A whiff of extra spicy Cheetos? Suddenly your saliva glands go into overdrive and you're back at square one.
Understanding your body and manipulating a diet setup to exploit your strengths and minimize your weaknesses will get you lean and ripped sooner.
Research supports the principle of flexible dieting, as mentioned above. Meal timing, frequency, and food selection are all variables you can adjust to fit your lifestyle. Taking an extra half-hour to think about the following questions regarding the other 90% of your life could save you years of frustration and stalled progress.
What's my work schedule? Is it pretty stable, or all over the place? How can I eat for my goals and not clutter my life with stressful cooking and food concerns?
What times do I have available to cook my meals? Big, easy meals I pre-prepare on the weekends, or easy foods I can throw together at the end of the day?
What are my bad habits that have stopped my diet attempts before? No time to cook? Temptation of junk food at work? Lots of lunches with clients? Too much eating out? And how can I adjust to suit my needs? How can I adjust my meal plan to make it easy for me to be good?
When's my training and when do I get most hungry? Structure your food around your life, not the other way around.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. You don't want to be stuck trying to figure out something you can actually stick to forever. Be smarter about it sooner and you can focus your energy where it really feels good, like getting PR's in the gym.
This isn't to say that dieting is not a struggle. It is. Investing in your goals and reaching them requires hard work. Make your investment a smarter, more efficient one.
Imagining that willpower will spring up over night is dumb. Progress is built with good habits and consistency. Plan for your weaknesses and avoid getting stuck wondering where your "willpower" went.
5. Manipulate Your Protein
Researchers come to plenty of conclusions about certain diet protocols and their efficacy, without thinking about everyone eating the same amounts of protein. This is one lesson we can learn from traditional bodybuilding diet setups.
Get your protein.
The protein amount in the diet is one of the most important variables for fat loss, muscle growth, and diet adherence (a.k.a. keeping your sanity). As the king of macronutrients, upping your protein is as close as you can get to "magic" in a diet setup if you haven't taken it seriously before.
Why? Protein is the most thermogenic nutrient. Basically, it costs the most to process in the body. It also has the highest levels of satiety, so you feel more satisfied with meals high in protein.
It's the most valuable macro for lean mass retention while in a deficit, and can be combined with both fat and carbs successfully. A consistent level of protein in your diet can't be underestimated. Aiming for at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is the agreed upon basic recommendation.
Cutting or dropping calories? Consider making protein even higher to stack the odds in your favor for retaining lean mass and keep you as satisfied as possible while calories are low.
If you have a lot of fat to lose, setting protein at 1 gram per pound might not be realistic. If so, consider setting protein at 1 gram per pound of your goal weight. So if you are 300 pounds and aim to weigh 225, go off of 225 for protein intake.
Nutritionist Alan Aragon came up with this shortcut when getting an accurate lean mass measurement isn't possible. He calls this a "sneaky way of setting protein based on lean body mass, without having to measure or figure out exactly what your LBM is."
Another great myth that we can conveniently toss is the claim that only 30 grams of protein can be "used" by the body at a time and anything beyond that is being thrown out. Not true. The argument is that protein synthesis will cap out at 30-40 grams, but that has nothing to do with what your body will use and digest as a whole. Your body simply doesn't work that way.
Protein is a big player in diet considerations. Eat more of it to retain your lean mass while in a deficit.
When it comes to diet, you have a lot of options available if you remember the principles. There are no magic foods and there are no magic methods. The magic is in what works for you, and manipulating the method to suit your needs. Take advantage of the above strategies and solve the diet puzzle with your body. Strip the fat, grow some size, and show it off.
1. Bellisle, F, et al, Br J Nutr, 1997, April:77, Suppl 1:S57-70
2. Verboeket-van de Venne, Westerterp, KR, Eur J Clin Nutr, 1991, Mar:45(3):161-9