Well, tis the season and all that. What am I talking about? Well, diet season of course. A lot of us have finished our holiday binges and have maybe tried on a bathing suit or two and been horrified by what they see in the mirror. New Year’s resolutions, preparing for Spring Break, or just a desire for change in the post-holiday lull inspires many people to try to shed some pounds.
How do they do this?
Well, its pretty well known that gym attendance seems to increase exponentially for the first month or two after the holidays. And the infomercials on all the latest diet fads and exercise programs seem to get twice as much airing. However, very few people are really able to accomplish their goals without the aid of a personal trainer, boot camp coach, nutritional program, or Tony Horton. Many people blame this on a lack of motivation. But, the truth is, a lot of people work very hard and have a hard time ever seeing results and it has little to do with motivation and a lot more to do with a lack of good information.
I’ve written a lot on this blog about diet and the one thing I stress more than anything is that your ideal diet is one that YOU optimize for yourself. This requires an attention to detail, record-keeping, and the ability to adjust things as you go. In this post, I’m going to review the some of the guidelines that will help you to succeed with your body composition goals.
Before I do that, however, I want to make this point:
If you want to change your body composition, it will come from your diet. Exercising every day may not help towards this goal, but paying attention to your diet EVERY DAY will.
Keep a diet journal.
The most important part about keeping a journal is that it allows us to see what works and doesn’t work. Keeping a realistic account of not only your diet, but also your training schedule and general sense of well-being is extremely important to your success.
Don’t try and make too many changes too soon. Very few people can make a drastic change in their diet and stick to it for the long term. Start with protein focus and work from there.
If you suspect you are having problems with a particular food, try eliminating it for a week and see if you see an improvement or no change. Problems can be gastro-intestinal (upset stomach, bloating, loose stools, constipation), respiratory (congestion or wheezing), and/or dermatological (hives, rashes, flushing, etc.).
Protein first and with every meal.
For too long our American diet fads have focused on fat or carbohydrates. This simply cannot be a part of performance nutrition. As we’ve discussed, performance nutrition is focused on synergy between our strength and conditioning program and our diet. The key macronutrient that will determine our success with this in terms of building and repairing muscle and connective tissue, supporting immune function, and synthesizing essential biomolecules such as enzymes and hormones is protein.
The first change we need to make in our diets is to make sure that we are getting our daily protein requirement, roughly 0.4 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight depending on activity level. Therefore, every time we plan a meal, whether it be a snack, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, we need to first think about where the protein is coming from and make that the priority of the meal. This will automatically change the character of your meals. You will no longer want to snack on pretzels or chips; nuts may be a better choice. Breakfast will no longer be a bowl of boxed cereal; whole grain cereal or eggs may be a better choice.
Keep processed foods to a minimum including protein supplements.
All refined and processed foods are broken down very quickly in the gut. In the case of refined flours and sugars, this means that they get into the bloodstream very quickly and efficiently which delivers a huge load of calories that we don’t really need. These are also devoid of fiber, protein, and micronutrients that are usually found in real food.
Processed foods often contain fats not found in nature such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) and corn oil (abnormally high in omega-6 fatty acids). These fats have been found to cause abnormally high storage of fat in the omentum or abdominal fat and may be associated with an increase in diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Whey protein is great as a post-workout recovery meal, but try not to rely on it for all your protein needs. The human body has a shortened digestive tract compared to herbivores (animals that eat plants). This is because we evolved to eat meat. So, eat meat. It’s good for you.
Whole grain foods contain protein and fiber.
Whole grains contain protein, that’s what makes them “whole”. Fiber is great, but we can get that from beans, vegetables, and fruits as well. Pepperidge Farm has a great line of whole grain bread products with over 5 grams of protein per serving. Other whole grains are quinoa, barley, brown rice, cous-cous, etc. Please read your nutrition labels, all grains are not created equal.
Meal timing is of the utmost importance.
The bulk of calories should be taken in during the active times of the day. The macronutrient profile of meals is also important in regards to how it affects one’s hunger and storage of nutrients.
When recording what we eat in our food journals, it is also important to record how we feel. Hunger, fatigue, and lack of performance are all clues as to how your diet is affecting you. Mid-afternoon crashes are usually the result of not enough energy calories to compensate for activity or perhaps the wrong combination of macronutrients. Consuming a large number of energy calories before bed rather than during the active times of the day will cause those calories to be stored rather than be utilized. This is especially important to keep track of for those who work an odd schedule or do shift work.
Post-workout meals are very important and should contain protein and carbohydrates, but little or no fat as this will slow down absorption of nutrients in the gut. Carbohydrates will create an insulin release that will carry protein across the muscle cell wall and allow for immediate muscle repair and recovery. This meal should be consumed within one hour of working out and should consist of 20-40 grams of easily digestible protein and 10-80 grams of carbohydrates. This can easily be accomplished with a whey protein shake sweetened with dextrose.
Whey protein, although it is a great supplement, in excess, is just an extra source of calories. If you are currently taking a whey protein supplement more than once a day, try cutting back to once a day and get the rest of your protein from natural sources. Post-workout meals can also come from more natural sources such as yams for carbohydrate and tuna or low-fat cottage cheese for protein.
If you are looking to lose bodyfat, limit or avoid consumption of calorically dense starches such as pasta, white rice, most bread, processed potatoes (french fries, hash browns, etc.), and sugar, ie processed foods.
These foods are calorically dense and easy to overeat. Instead, try corn, black beans, green beans, sweet potatoes, eggplant, fennel, bok choy, avocados, tomatoes, etc. This will create a calorie deficit in your diet that will begin fat loss.
Again, take this rule with a grain of salt, especially if you are a teenager or athlete. Teenage athletes, although they would benefit from a more natural diet, need as many calories as they can get because their bodies are still growing an developing.
However, for those of us who are finished with the growing an developing and would perhaps like to “undevelop” certain parts of our bodies, these foods can be difficult to manage consumption of because the serving sizes are very small relative to what we commonly serve ourselves. Substituting lower glycemic and less calorically dense foods for these options will cut down the number of calories in your diet without cutting down on the volume of food you are consuming.
Satiating the palate satiates the appetite. Marinades, spices, salsas, chutneys, are all ways to add flavor and satisfaction to a meal without relying on dessert. Do, however, avoid fatty sauces and dressings as these can add hundreds of unnecessary calories.
We often think we are hungry when we actually crave a certain taste or sensation. This may be because we crave a certain micronutrient such as salt or another mineral. Eating bland foods and denying ourselves the pleasures of eating as well as essential micronutrients can often lead to uncontrollable food binges later on. But, be aware of what you are using to flavor your foods. Dressings and sauces can hide hundreds of calories of unnatural and/or processed fats and sugars.
Whole, natural foods are more satiating for long periods of time than processed foods.
Fiber, fat, protein, and acidic foods all lower the glycemic index of a meal and slow absorption of food into the gut. Foods high in fiber are not only calorically sparse, they are more filling. Use fats sparingly, but don’t be afraid of fats. We need all fats, including saturated fats in our diets for optimal health. Omega-3 fats are of special importance. Look into taking a fish oil (not cod liver oil) supplement to supply this essential fat. Healthy sources of fat are olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, grass-fed non-processed meat and poultry, and moderate amounts of full fat dairy products.
To compensate for nutrient soil depletion, take a naturally derived vitamin and mineral supplement supplement daily.
Prepare bulk foods in advance.
The hardest thing about eating well is giving up convenience foods. Our lives are busy, hectic, and sometimes just completely crazy. Getting a cheeseburger at the drive-thru is a lot easier than preparing a wholesome meal from scratch. However, it is relatively easy to make a big batch of stew, a casserole, or even a batch of grilled meat that you can use for several days. I will typically marinate a grill a large batch of chicken thighs that I can reheat throughout the week. I also pre-bake yams and make a broccoli slaw that keeps for several days. Small containers of cottage cheese can be very convenient as well. Figure out what you like to eat and go from there. Is it beef stew? Enchiladas? Shrimp gumbo? Pork bbq? Tabouleh?
Don’t keep snack foods in the house.
Seriously. The kids don’t need it and neither do you. Apples with peanut butter, grapes, nuts, yogurt, etc. make great snacks and you won’t sit down in front of the television and eat a whole bag of apples.
On a healthy diet, after the initial adjustment period, you should NOT feel tired, run down, depressed, injured, or unmotivated. This can be a sign that you are missing critical nutrients or simply not getting enough calories. Use tape measurements of your waist, hips, thighs, arms and neck to track progress. If you aren’t seeing results, something has to change.
And lastly, if you want to get stronger and/or increase your muscle mass, you have to EAT A LOT OF FOOD. Don’t mistake a six-pack for a sign that you strong and healthy. It only means you have low body fat. I have seen far too many individuals sacrifice energy, overall health, and even bone density in the quest for “skinny”. You will look and feel far better if you build a strong body first; any extra pounds will be much easier to shed with metabolically active muscle to help burn it off.