"What diet should I follow?" is one of the most common questions people ask. And for good reason – most folks at this point have an understanding that you "can't out-train a bad diet." There's also a constant influx of diet related information on magazine covers, on morning news shows, from friends talking about their 30 day cleanse, and even on fitness websites like this one…
There's also the standard, boring advice like calorie counting that we know doesn't work because we've tried it. Sure, there's plenty of research showing the effectiveness of calorie restriction in weight loss – it's simple thermodynamics – but who actually sticks to a calorie-restricted diet long term?
It's the same thing as being told to "keep a budget." Sure it works. Who does it? No one.
We like to think that we're more sophisticated than clicking on every "One weird trick…" headline with a photo-shopped six pack, and we've also tried a lot of the standard "count your calories" advice, but most of us are still not quite where we want to be in terms of how we look and how we perform in the gym.
If we want to really make a change in our fitness and get the body and the performance we covet, we have to understand our own psychology.
Do you ever see those quoteboards on Instagram? "Forget all the reasons why it won't work and believe the one reason why it will!" – with a sunset in the background, a super corny font, and an ocean of hash tags below. This is the moment. From this moment forward, everything will be different.
But the reality is that what people are missing in terms of reaching their goals isn't a lack of inspiration. It's a lack of understanding of how behavioral change actually works, as well as a lack of clarity on their goals.
And, it doesn't mean that once you start trying to clean up your diet that you have to become a fitness freak who only drinks kale smoothies and can't go out with friends anymore.
Getting results isn't about "magic moments." It's not about "weird tricks." Nor is it about one little tweak that makes all the difference, even though I've seen plenty of them. The athlete with extreme fatigue who discovers they have a B12 deficiency and gets their life back. The "hard gainer" who ups his protein intake and gains 15 pounds of muscle over a few months. The back squat plateau that ends with a 30# personal record after a cycle focusing on improving single-leg strength. The woman struggling with sleep disruption and IBS who eliminates FODMAPs from her diet and feels normal again.
Now you're probably excited. Those stories are inherently satisfying. Something was wrong, and then it was fixed, and the protagonist got what they were looking for all along. Sure the evidence is anecdotal and who knows what actually happened in any of those cases, but there was an intention and the result was achieved.
But, in most cases, it's not that simple. It's a roundabout, complicated process of trial and error with long,frustrating plateaus.
Take losing fat and building muscle, for example.
To use a reductionist, simplistic example, think of your body as having a variety of "thermostats" that control things like blood pH, energy expenditure, core temperature, etc. If a system starts to move too far outside of the allocated range, then the body kicks on systems that push it back – just like thermostat in your home. If it's set to 72 and it's hotter than that outside, the air conditioning kicks in when the air temperature hits 73.
Now, in the body, these systems are all interconnected and all dependent upon each other. We run into a lot of trouble when trying to change body composition because these systems resist our change.
Say we wanted to keep the house at 74 degrees and the thermostat is set to 72. Sure, we can open the windows, turn on the oven, and start a fire in the living room in an effort to raise the temperature, but the air conditioning is going to be battling us the whole time. Wouldn't it be easier to just change the thermostat to 74?
This is where the tricky part comes in with the body. It's not as simple as just pushing a button, but we can try to get our systems to regulate our food intake and body fatness in a way that is in alignment with our goals.
And, when we throw the fact that we're a bunch of non-rational, emotional, habit-driven creatures with a bunch of heuristics evolved for life on the savanna floating in our brains, it gets even more complicated.
When it all boils down, the question isn't "What diet should I follow?" But rather, it's "What is my biggest limiting factor in getting the results that I need – and what is a sustainable way for me to work on changing this factor?"
Because not only is it important to discover what the most important action for you to take is – It's even more important to figure out what action you can take and keep taking.
If we start to take a look at medication compliance statistics, we see that, depending on which statistics you follow, only about half of people take their medication as prescribed. Now, we could go down a rabbit hole regarding the intricacies of the pharmaceutical industry, the health care industry, the health insurance industry and how our society views and handles chronic disease, but this is not the place for that. Instead, the point lies more in the quirks of human behavior: when offered a magic pill, people still don't take it!
So, most of the diet advice out there is framed in a "quick fix, one simple solution" package (eliminate this macronutrient, take this supplement, etc.) that is disingenuous at best relative to the research. And, even if it were true, most people still wouldn't follow the diet or take the pill.
What's the solution? Well, I like to take a step-by-step approach. And I really mean step-by-step. Compliance to behavioral change increases dramatically when it's performed one piece at a time. Compliance drops dramatically with each additional behavior added to the "to change" list.
So, to get started, here are some of the basic first steps for most people most of the time. Without knowing your specific situation and goals, it's quite possible that some of this advice is inappropriate for you. And, despite what I just said, we're going to give you information on more than one step at a time. If you want the best results, try implementing this step-by-step and prove that you're able to complete each piece for two weeks consistently before attacking the next one.
1. Step one: Ensure adequate protein intake
For folks following a resistance training program, we recommend 1g of protein per pound of lean mass. If you start digging through research studies, you can find some variation in the numbers here, but this is a decent rule of thumb for most people (who don't have kidney disease).
The reasoning here is simple, a sufficient pool of amino acids (derived from protein) is required to build muscle mass as well as create neurotransmitters. If someone is eating inadequate protein levels relative to their activity, they will struggle to recover from training, and will thus struggle to get adaptation.
Also, protein triggers satiety mechanisms, thus increasing the feeling of fullness and decreasing the likelihood of overeating on "junk" foods.
We generally recommend protein from quality animal sources (local & pasture-raised if possible) for a complete amino acid profile.
In terms of calculating total amount of protein consumed, I like people to do a full one day food log in something like myfitnesspal to get a good estimate of where they're at. However, regular food logging and counting is often a hassle. For most people, if they shoot to get a fist-sized portion of protein at each meal and consume a protein drink after their workout, they will be in the right ballpark for their daily protein consumption.
2. Step two: Cook at home
Now, this is one that gets really complicated. While ostensibly simple and easy, all kinds of time management and convenience issues come into play here.
The goal is to remove, as much as possible, highly processed and highly palatable foods from the diet. And I don't just mean "things that taste good." Packaged and restaurant food is created to tickle the reward centers in our brain. And, if done to excess, this disrupts our innate capacity to regulate our consumption. The research in this area is still developing, but, if you're interested, I'd recommend checking out Stephan Guyenet's blog at Whole Health Source and Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink.
Now keep in mind, this isn't an evil conspiracy by the Illuminati of the food industry (probably…). If McDonald's could get people lining up outside its doors for grass-fed beef and kale, I bet they'd be more than happy to supply it.
So, how to step out of this cycle? The best way to do this is to grocery shop and prepare your own food at home. Now, I recognize that most of us are constantly battling the demon of not enough time, so it's not as simple as just saying "Ok, I'm going to cook now." This is where small-chunking the behavioral change becomes handy.
I've seen success with folks starting with a single food prep day (usually Sunday afternoon) during which they cook a large portion of something (I'll leave this up to you – but something like chili is a good start). This can then become lunch for the week.
While mornings are rushed for a lot of people, some people also have more control over their first meal of the deal since there aren't as many competing demands before they head off to work. An omelet with some vegetables is a good, consistent option for some people here.
For people who, based upon their schedule and lifestyle, can't find the time to cook at home, a meal service is a great option. While most meal services are still going to put in a lot of effort to make sure their food tastes good, there are plenty of services for fitness-minded folks that are composed primarily of locally-raised meat and produce (we are a delivery hub for KitchFix at South Loop Strength & Conditioning, for example).
3. Step three: Start to look at food quality
This is where things start to get a bit more nuanced. I believe that most people can get the bulk of their results by really digging into the first two steps and small-chunking the behavioral change pieces – and there is certainly some carryover between those two points and improving the quality of your food choices. If you're eating a good chunk of protein and you're cooking your meals at home as much as possible, you're probably going to be eating pretty "clean."
Still, some people will see additional benefit from looking to remove foods that tend to cause inflammation, stress, blood sugar balance, and digestive upset. This isn't meant to be a scare tactic or an admonition to remove entire food groups from your diet. However, if you start digging through the research and the information in the ancestral health community, there are some pretty compelling reasons to reduce the amount of sugar, flour, and vegetable oil in your diet for most people most of the time.
Based upon your own personal goals and situation this advice may change (some athletes may need to eat more calorically-dense foods to to fuel their caloric requirements and others may simply not want to make the lifestyle adjustments relative to their goals). That said, we do have some guidelines regarding the foods that we recommend making up the bulk of the diet.
Proteins (locally-raised, organic and/or pastured as much as possible): animal muscle and organ meats, eggs, dairy (if tolerated)
Carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, starchy tubers (potatoes, yams, taro)
Fats: avocado, coconut, olive oil, nuts, seeds, butter (pastured as much as possible)
Added sugars, flour, vegetable oils (soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil, partially hydrogenated oils – olive oil and coconut oil are fine!)
4. Step four: Dig deeper
If all of these things are in place, you're following a solid exercise program, you're managing stress, and you're sleeping (more info to come on sleep and stress later), it may be time to start digging deeper. This is where things like nutritional supplements, lab testing, and elimination diets can come into play. There is a lot of information available on this type of thing, since it's fun to talk about and it's psychologically appealing ("one weird trick…" again).
However, for most people most of the time, they will be able to make significant progress by focusing on the basics of steps one, two and three above.
For specific performance goals, it may also be important to have a detailed nutrition plan to make sure that you're recovering from training or staying within your weight class.
If you're interested in really going down the path to elite performance, fitness model body composition, or unraveling complicated issues preventing you from reaching your fitness goals, you will likely need to work one-on-one with a qualified professional and invest a significant amount of time, money and effort.
If you're at the dig deeper page and you just love the journey, e-mail me and I'd be happy to send you an avalanche of books, blog posts, and research studies to keep you busy for a year.