In this article I will describe how to set up your diet so that is both flexible and effective. In order to do this, however, we must first establish a hierarchy—a means of determining what's important and what's not. As I mentioned in part one, too many people get caught up in details that typically don’t have a significant impact on results:
Is this bread whole grain? What’s the glycemic index of this carb? Is there too much cholesterol in this?
These types of questions may have some significance in specific situations for some people, but they are not the “big rocks,” so to speak.
The first thing I want you to do is to shift your thinking from exclusive to inclusive. Rather than having a list of foods to avoid, we’re going to focus on including a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods in order to meet certain macro and micro nutritional targets. How you reach those targets is entirely up to you. This is the core concept of flexible dieting.
Flexible dieting is the Bruce Lee of diets because it allows you to pick and choose the nutritional strategies that work for you while leaving behind those that don’t.
What follows is a breakdown of what needs to happen in order for you to reach your goals, listed from most important to least important. I will be framing this discussion based on Eric Helms’ (of 3DMuscleJourney) Muscle and Strength Nutritional Pyramid. If you have the time, I highly recommend watching his excellent video series that covers everything I’ll be mentioning in this article in great detail.
1. Determine your Caloric Intake and Rate of Weight Change
Here’s the good news:
If your only concern is changing your bodyweight, as long as you get this step right you’ll succeed. If you’re only going to do one thing on this list, better make it this one.
Consider the first law of thermodynamics, more specifically the law of conservation of energy:
Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
The calories we consume from food (whether it’s chicken and broccoli or pizza and wings) are actually just a form of energy.
Now think of your body as a machine. In order for it to run you must provide it with fuel. When we eat food, we provide our bodies with the fuel needed to run.
Pretty simple concept, right?
Taking it further, if you provide your body with too much fuel, it will store the energy in order to use it later—like a camel uses its hump to store water, our bodies use fat stores to hold energy. Conversely, if you provide your body with insufficient amounts of fuel, it will tap into its energy stores in order to make up the difference.
This is why we store or burn fat.
So, if all you’re concerned with is gaining or losing weight, then it doesn’t matter what you eat, it only matters how much you eat. When all else is equal, your net energy balance is what determines whether or not your weight will change.
Any diet that has ever worked only works because it has gotten this part right. They may have arrived at this caloric deficit through different means, but the common denominator is that they all manage to create a caloric deficit.
This is why every diet is able to produce success stories despite employing drastically different protocols.
The truth is, studies have shown time and time again that when caloric intake is equalized between groups, the composition of the diet itself does not matter.
And this is precisely why flexible dieting is so powerful!
It gives you the freedom to eat the foods you like (just not, perhaps, in the amounts that you like!). Think of how common it is to hear a food/food group referred to as “fattening.” This should now be a major red flag for you…after all, any food is fattening if you’ve entered a caloric surplus.
And the opposite holds true as well.
In fact, as long as you stay in a caloric deficit, you can eat nothing but Twinkies and still lose weight. Is that a healthy way to go about it?
Of course not, but it does prove a point…
The key is being in a deficit.
We can all think of people who struggle with their weight in spite of eating a seemingly healthy diet with plenty of exercise. And conversely, can’t you just as easily think of someone who seems to eat nothing but junk and yet stays very lean?
So what’s going on?
It all comes back to calories: The people who maintain their weight eating junk food do so only because they happen to eat around their maintenance level of calories. Those who are gaining weight on a “healthy” diet do so only because they are eating above their maintenance without realizing it.
The issue here is that people are REALLY bad at estimating their own caloric intake and also REALLY bad at estimating how many calories they've burned through exercise.
So how can we get better at estimating our calories?
By counting them.
Calorie Counting: A Crash Course
The first thing you need to do is find your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This will let you know how many calories to consume in order to maintain your weight. A quick Google search will provide numerous calculators, but to get in the ballpark you can multiply your bodyweight by 15.
So, a 200lb man will require roughly 3,000 calories to maintain his weight.
To test this number, he should consume 3,000 calories a day for a week, weighing himself each day. If his weight stays roughly the same, then he is likely very close to or at his maintenance level intake. If it’s trending upwards, he's above maintenance; if it’s trending downwards, he's below.
The next thing you must do is determine your rate of weight change.
If you want to lose weight, subtract 10-20% from your maintenance level intake. Your goal should be to lose about 0.5 to 1% maximum of your total bodyweight per week—for most people this is in the 1-2 lb range.
If you want to gain weight, then add 10% to your maintenance level intake. Your rate of acceptable weight gain (meaning maximizing lean body mass gains while minimizing fat gains) will vary based on your age and training experience:
Beginners should aim for 2-3 lbs of weight gain per month, while intermediate lifters should shoot for about 1-2 lbs per month.
Remember that your TDEE is a moving target—as your bodyweight changes over time, your TDEE will change as well! If you are consistent with your diet and exercise and don’t see any changes in weight two weeks in a row, then you must adjust your calories accordingly.
Great, but how do I actually track my calories?
Starting out, I highly suggest you buy a digital food scale ($10-20). It’s far more accurate than other means of measurement (should you use a rounded tablespoon or a flat, etc.) and they’re super easy to use.
You’re already putting food in a bowl or plate, right? Now you’re just putting the food on a plate that happens to be on a scale. Over time you’ll learn what six ounces of chicken looks like and you can start eyeballing portions.
The key to counting calories is to be accurate with the calorically dense stuff (starchy carbs, foods high in fat, etc.) but don’t sweat the small stuff (was that 3 cups of spinach or 4? Oh no! How many slices of cucumber did I eat?).
Next, you should use an app to record your intake. I like MyFitnessPal but there are plenty of others that will work just fine.
Before going any further I want to address some common criticisms regarding counting calories—namely that it is inaccurate, obsessive, time-consuming, and impractical…
Here’s my quick response to these arguments:
2. Set Macronutrient and Fiber Intake
While it’s true that getting the right number of total calories is what will govern whether or not your weight changes, setting predetermined targets for your macros (protein, carbs, fats) is important for optimizing your performance in the gym and making the dieting process less painful.
Like I said before, people love to villainize certain macronutrients: For a long time fat was the enemy. After that, carbs became the bad guys—something that is still quite common to hear today. Even protein has had its time in the limelight with accusations that it causes kidney damage, cancer, and smelly farts (okay, so maybe that last one has some truth to it…).
But this is Flexible dieting. No food is off limits and certainly not entire macronutrients! Each macronutrient serves a purpose:
Fat helps your body maintain optimal hormonal levels (and makes your food taste a whole lot better!). Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source and are important for fueling your workouts and ensuring that you stay sane during your diet. And protein is responsible for building and repairing body tissues, is very satiating, and is especially important when trying to maintain lean body mass when losing weight.
As you can see, each macronutrient serves a purpose. There’s no need to feel guilty about eating something that’s fatty or high in carbs. If you’re tracking your intake, then you simply adjust your food choices based on what you’ve eaten that day.
Here are my recommendations for setting up your macros:
You also may find it useful to set a range instead of a specific number for your macro intake. Something like plus or minus 10 grams of protein/carbs and plus or minus 5 grams of fat allows for more flexibility while still ensuring that your energy balance isn't too far off target.
So, taking our 200lb man with a TDEE of 3,000 calories, we would get the following:
For fiber intake, I recommend about
Just like with counting calories, your aim is not perfection. You do not have to hit the exact amount of grams of protein/carbs/fats per day in order to see results!
If counting your macros seems completely overwhelming, then I would suggest that you start with only tracking caloric intake and protein. For your carb and fat intake, just use common sense and try to include carbs around training and make sure you’re including healthy fats in your diet.
3. Micronutrients/Minerals/Water Intake:
While it’s true that you can reach your macros in whatever manner you choose, that doesn’t mean you can ignore your bodies need for micronutrients and minerals.
In other words, you still have to eat your fruits and veggies!
Aim for at least 3-4 servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit per day.
Assuming sufficient variety in your diet, this should be adequate to safeguard you against deficiency.
Total fluid intake should be about 2/3rds your bodyweight in fluid ounces.
This includes water, coffee, tea, soda, juice…basically everything except alcohol can count towards this target.
Another good measure of proper hydration, courtesy of Lyle McDonald, is that at least 5 of your daily urinations should be clear.
4. Nutrient Timing/Frequency:
There are a few pervasive myths regarding meal frequency/timing that I’d like to briefly address…
Keep in mind that the further we get down this list, the less important the step. This means if you have the first three steps down, these final two items should not be a major concern for you.
Unfortunately, it’s quite common for people to mistakenly put a lot of emphasis on the most trivial aspects of a diet.
Consider the following oft-quoted dietary tips for example:
And do they also just-so-happen to sell protein shakes?
To be fair, there is some scientific evidence that suggests some benefits to utilizing peri-workout nutrition protocols, but this "window" is nowhere near as rigid and narrow as most people think. Fortunately, Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld did an excellent job of reviewing the current literature and have proposed a much more reasonable set of guidelines:
“Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than approximately 3–4 hours, given a typical resistance training bout lasting 45–90 minutes. If protein is delivered within particularly large mixed-meals (which are inherently more anticatabolic), a case can be made for lengthening the interval to 5–6 hours. This strategy covers the hypothetical timing benefits while allowing significant flexibility in the length of the feeding windows before and after training.”
So how do you determine how many meals to eat per day?
Personal preference and common sense.
If you’re never hungry in the morning and hate eating breakfast, then don’t force yourself to eat a huge breakfast!
If you can’t keep yourself from snacking late at night, then simply allot more calories for your evening meal/s. Don’t frontload your diet!
If you were to force me to give more specific guidelines, here is what I’d suggest:
If your goal is to lose weight, experiment with larger, more infrequent meals. Something along the lines of 2-4 meals per day depending on personal preference. There is some evidence that suggests that lower meal frequency can have a greater effect on satiety and my anecdotal experience confirms this as well.
If you have 2,000 or less calories per day to play with, splitting those calories into six small meals of around 300 calories each is going to make it pretty difficult to feel satisfied.
Conversely, if you are trying to gain weight and must consume 3,000 calories a day or more, then a higher meal frequency of 5-8 meals may work a lot better.
Trying to cram 3,000 calories into 1-2 meals can be fun on occasion, but it can also be a slippery slope: This type of eating pattern almost requires you to eat junk to hit your calories and the fruits and veggies are often the first thing to go.
In other words, avoid extremes and do what works best for you!
Finally, last on our list is supplementation. Notice this comes last!
Don’t be that guy worrying about whether he’s going catabolic overnight because he used whey protein instead of casein...
...meanwhile, he has no idea what his total caloric intake is and he hasn't had a vegetable since his parents kicked him out.
Supplements can be beneficial, but there is a reason they are last on the list: Any small beneficial effect of supplementation will be completely washed out if you don’t have the first four steps in place.
there are some supplements that do work and may be worth your consideration.
I've split the supplements up by type. We'll start with the exciting stuff, the performance enhancers!
I must warn you, however...the list is short
So, the above-mentioned list begs the question:
Why not just take a multivitamin?
Unfortunately, multivitamins, while being a great concept tend to fall short in their effectiveness. Like the 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioners, they suffer from trying to do too many things at once—often lacking the minimum effective dose for key vitamins while including other vitamins that are generally unnecessary.
As long as you are hitting your macros and getting your daily servings of fruits/veggies, I find it’s better to examine your diet and target specific vitamins/minerals that may be lacking.
So that’s it for supplements. These are what I consider to be the most well-researched and effective supplements available on the market today. Whether or not you need to be taking any of the above is totally dependent on your health, medical history, goals, and amount of disposable income.
Okay, so I know that was a lot to take in, but you now have all of the tools you need to create a diet that is perfect for you!
Does this mean you’ll get it right the first time?
Of course not.
Does this mean that dieting will be easy now?
What it does mean is that you will now know why your diet does or does not work.
There are people who live successful, healthy lives following all sorts of different dietary approaches—many of which directly contradict each other. What does this mean?
There is no one way.
You have to choose what works best for you and now you have the means to do so.
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