Proper nutrition is one of the most crucial elements in realizing your maximum physical potential. It’s also one of the most difficult components for many people to master. Proper nutrition can lead to better sleep, faster recovery time, better focus, higher energy levels, reduced bodyfat, increased strength, and a host of other benefits. But we all know that. The hardest part for me has been finding an eating plan that is effective, easy to follow, and sustainable. Here’s what has been working great for me and many others.
What Types of Food?
For a long time, I struggled with what types of food I should be eating. I knew enough that foods like ice cream and pizza were ‘bad’ for you, but I wasn’t sure why. I was ‘skinny-fat’ most of my life until freshman year of college, when I started experimenting with a low-carb diet. Dropping carbs worked well, but I was still eating a lot of processed foods. I also experienced some lethargy and lost strength in the gym. I reverted back to my old ways and continued to eat haphazardly for several years. When I finally decided to get my act back together, I experimented with smaller portioned meals multiple times per day, mostly from ‘clean sources’ (lean meats, vegetables, fruits, protein powder, nuts, seeds). I still didn’t achieve the results that I wanted. I wasn’t exactly sure what foods I should be classifying as ‘clean’ or why I should be avoiding other foods. Finally, I came across the Paleo diet and Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint.
I don’t like to really call these ‘diets’ because it’s more of a lifestyle change that you should keep for the rest of your life. I encourage all of my clients to pickup a copy of Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint and Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution and read them carefully. The message of the books is pretty clear:
- Modern processed foods are causing an epidemic of obesity and illness in our society
- That by eating the foods our bodies evolved to eat we can improve our health
- By eliminating certain foods that were introduced into our diets relatively recently we can improve our health
- By exercising while eating well you can achieve remarkable physical results
That being said, here’s a good overview of what foods you should eat with abandon, what foods you should eat in moderation, and what foods you should avoid altogether:
Eat With Abandon: Meat Fowl, Fish, Seafood, Eggs, Vegetables, Roots, Tubers, Bulbs, Herbs and Spices, Animal Fats, Olives and Olive Oil, Avocados, coconut
Limit: Nuts, Seeds, Fruit — Better choices in the nut category include macadamias, cashews, and hazelnuts. Almonds aren’t terrible. Seeds are generally rich sources of linoleic acid because they can be eaten in large quantities (the serving sizes are typically in the tablespoon to 1/4 cup range and can be misleading). Sunflower and sesame seeds area terrible choice in the seed category. Soaking nuts prior to consumption is recommended but not necessary. Reduce the serving size if you are going to pick a fruit that has a high fructose content.
Avoid: Cereal grains including: all varieties of wheat (spelt, einkorn, emmer, durum), barley, rye, oats, triticale, corn (maize), rice (including wild rice), sorghum, millet, fonio, and teff and legumes. Grain-like susbstances or pseudocereals including: amaranth, breadnut, buckwheat, cattail, chia, cockscomb, kaniwa, pitseed goosefoot, quinoa, and wattleseed. Pseudocereals are the seeds of broad leaf plants whereas grains are the seeds of grasses.
If you want a good explanation of why you should avoid foods in the last category, check out this article by Timothy Ferriss – How to Keep Feces out of Your Bloodstream.
Given the above, it can be daunting getting started, but I’ve found it very helpful to find some great recipes and make large quantities of food you enjoy. Here are some great sites with Paleo/Primal recipes:
- Performance Menu — Great recipes that are fast and easy to make
- MarksDailyApple Recipes — Very tasty recipes, sometimes a little complicated
- Son of Grok
- Health-Bent — High-end paleo cooking at home
That being said, you don’t necessarily even have to get into recipes in order to start cleaning up your diet. Shop only around the perimeter of the supermarket (you’ll avoid all the processed food this way). Stick with large quantities of lean meats, vegetables, nuts, and limited fruits. Here’s a sample day for me:
Breakfast: 1 Large bowl of cottage cheese with 1/2 cup of blueberries
2 scoops of whey protein powder, 2 tbsp of almond butter, 1/2 banana, 8 oz o2f water blended together (takes 1 min to make and consume)
Meat and vegetables quickly reheated from last night’s dinner
4 egg omelette with vegetables (if you practice it, you can get down the cooking/eating/cleaning in under 15 mins)
Handful of nuts + handful of vegetables (ex. almonds + carrots)
Tuna salad over a bed of baby spinach, olive oil as dressing
Grilled chicken breast with vegetables, salsa on side
8 oz of cold cuts (preferably turkey / roast beef / ham) with mustard + handful of baby carrots
Some form of lean meat + vegetables
How Much To Eat
So along I went, eating a Paleo/Primal diet (Primal allows some foods such as dairy in moderation that Paleo does not) and dropping weight and feeling great. Eventually I hit a plateau though – I couldn’t shed any more bodyfat and my progress had stalled. What went wrong? I took too literally the phrase in the previous section “Eat with abandon”. As long as you are ingesting more calories than you’re burning, you’re going to gain weight. I figured I could eat 2 lbs of ground beef per day with a 1/2 cup of olive oil and stay lean. Granted, my strength and energy were through the roof, but I was holding onto a lot of bodyfat and probably gaining some along the way. I started looking at the calories and portion sizes I was eating. A good starting point for anyone doing some calories counting is determining your today daily energy expenditure (TDEE). I recommend using one of the many online calculators to do so – such as this one.
Once you’ve determined you’re TDEE, you just need to measure how many calories you’re consuming daily and stay under that number if your goal is to lose weight. At 6’2″, 225 lbs, with a high activity level, my TDEE is around 3800 calories. I can eat 3800 calories per day and my body weight will remain unchanged. However, I firmly believe that what types of foods you eat is just as important as how much you eat, so I stick with the Paleo/Primal diet listed above.
When you’re eating less calories than you’re expending, you’re said to be in a net caloric deficit. When you’re eating more calories than you’re expending, you’re in a caloric surplus. Instead of thinking about these numbers daily, it can also be helpful and easier to think along weekly lines. For example, I expend (3800 calories/day * 7 days) = 26,600 calories per week. If I eat less than 26,600 calories per week, then I will lose weight.
What I found beneficial initially was writing down exactly what I was eating every day and then creating a spreadsheet to track the total number of calories on Google DOCS. This sounds a lot more time consuming than it really is. Here is a screenshot of my spreadsheet in action:
My best resource is WolframAlpha.com, because you can type in terms like “1 tbsp olive oil” or “1 lb flank steak” and it will spit out nutritional labels. It also helped that I was eating similar things every day, so I could just copy and paste the calories/protein/carbs/fats from 2 scoops of whey protein from one day to the next. Once I tallied everything up, I started to see how quickly the calories were adding up, and I experimented with dropping the portion sizes and once again started leaning out a little more. I thought I had reached my limits and I was proud of how far I’d come, but a bit pissed because it had taken me so long to realize the importance of eating properly.
You can also use an online calorie counting resource such as MyFitnessPal.com or download one of many applications for your smartphone that can track calories as well (MyFitnessPal has an app out for Android and IPhone).
Intermittent Fasting / LeanGains
When I start to describe this way of eating to most people, they start to roll their eyes and call me nuts. But it works. It works extremely well. It is a sustainable, healthy, and effective way to eat in order to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. It also allowed me to break through my fat-loss plateau and achieve then maintain a sub-10% bodyfat much easier than anything I had done before. I found that while fasting I had more energy and focus, and continued to his personal best on lifts at the gym. I first read about intermittent fasting on the site MarksDailyApple.com, but didn’t pay too much attention to it. I viewed it as a neat way to restrict calories, but nothing more. When I started seeing pictures popping up on the internet about people who had started doing the “LeanGains” plan (see below), I started paying attention fast.
Needless to say, I was impressed by what I was seeing, and decided to give it a try. The best overviews of The LeanGains approach can be found on the following websites:
- Martin Berkhan’s LeanGains.com — LeanGains Guide
- LeanGains Frequently Asked Questions
- Reddit LeanGains forum — questions and answers posted by LeanGains followers
If you had to choose one link to start with, I’d read the FAQ. Then read the LeanGains guide by Martin Berhan, who pioneered the LeanGains movement. Essentially, LeanGains consists of the following components:
- 16 hours of fasting, followed by a 6 hour ‘feeding window’ during which you eat
- Lift heavy things using the Big 4 Movement – Squat, Deadlift, Benchpress, Chinups (I would also add Overhead press)
- Eat 20% above your TDEE on training days, and -20% below your TDEE on rest days
- High protein everyday (I prefer 1g per lb of bodyweight). High carbs, low fat on training days, and high fat, low carbs on rest days
I recommend using the LeanGains calculator to get started – it helps calculate the calories you should be consuming on your rest and training days as well as the recommended ratios of fats, carbs, and protein. Once you’ve got your calories and breakdowns of macronutrients for rest and training days, just use your spreadsheet to adhere to that plan as best as possible.
I’ve struggled with overeating my entire life. For some people this can be a huge barrier to success in a sustainable eating plan. Every time I would start to make progress diet-wise, an epic binge-eating session or two would throw me off track. It took years before I finally decided that I couldn’t approach this alone, so I turned to support of other people and got their advice, both online and in person. Here is what I’ve learned so far that has helped me avoid overeating:
- Make a list of foods that you must avoid at all costs – foods that are you ‘trigger’ foods that you can’t have just one of. For me this includes ice cream, fast food, and desserts of any kind. I find that when I stick to my Paleo/Primal diet, I don’t get the urge to binge at all. I also stopped drinking diet soda and cut out artificial sweeteners. My reasoning was that these sweeteners made me crave actual sweet foods (I’m not sure if this is entirely true), but since I cut them out I’ve had a much easier time avoiding trigger foods. When I go out, I stick to club soda with lime or lemon.
- Plan your food for the day in the morning or the night before, and make a commitment to yourself and to another person that that food is all you are going to eat. I found that by writing out my meal list for the next day the night before, it takes a lot of guesswork and thinking out of the process. If I know exactly what I’m eating the next day and I’ve made that commitment with another person, I stick to the plan. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated either. If you’re busy or on the go, lunch can just be “1 sandwich”. Dinner can be “1 plate of food”. As long as you are committing to specific reasonable portion size, you should be able to avoid overeating.
It can be easy to get wrapped up in this and let food and food choices control you. If you find yourself obsessing about what to eat, counting calories obsessively, etc., you probably need to take a step back and ask yourself what’s really important. Going to an unplanned dinner isn’t going to throw your diet completely out of whack. You’re going to screw up here and there – just remember that this is a long-term commitment. Focus on the experience, not just the food. Enjoy your foods and make things that you like. The purpose of this way of eating for me is the streamline the process that I found works best. I don’t spend much time planning out meals or adding stuff up — I repeat a lot of meals because they taste good, are easy to make, and I enjoy them.