If I asked you to describe your diet approach in a sentence, what would you say?
If you’ve found your way here, I’ll assume that you follow some kind of macro target approach with a decent level of flexibility?
Most of the online fitness community does these days, it’s still the latest hip and trendy thing that every man and his dog’s parrot’s gold fish is doing.
I have a few gripes with the concept to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, macro based diets are a HUGE improvement for the fitness community and it allows a lot of people to make progress with a lot less effort but there are a few key elements that I believe need to be addressed.
Below are 5 changes that you can add to your diet to see instant improvement:
1) Protein quality
Something I see a lot of is with a shift away from food quality (haribo instead of rice) there has also been a shift in macro-nutrient ratio, specifically, I notice when I first talk with clients that protein is typically on the lower end of the spectrum and there is zero consideration for sources and timing.
I’m not saying this is the main thing to focus on, calories are still king, but the below approach is fairly simple way to add in some heavily researched concepts into your diet approach.
For the purposes of building and maintaining muscle, we want to get the most bang for our calorie buck. If we have x grams of protein per day, it makes sense that we get the most out of this.
The Essential Amino Acid, leucine has a significant stimulatory effect on MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis) and so we should focus on eating protein sources that include this. This probably isn’t news to you.
Now, assuming you track your diet your diet to some extent, take a look over the past few days. It’s not un-common to see trace grams of protein accumulating from carb and fat sources. If you’re already touching the lower ends of the suggested protein intake, with half of your protein coming from bread, pasta and similar, it maybe isn’t the best approach.
The easiest way to manage this is to consume sources of protein that contain 10g of essential amino acids (there doesn’t seem to be as many benefits to loading just leucine in isolation) in 3-4 meals per day. This would correspond to around 25g of whey protein or:
- 100-120g+ of beef, chicken, turkey (slightly bigger than the size of a deck of cards).
- 120g+ tuna (roughly a tin).
- 120g+ lean fish (a fillet slightly bigger than a chequebook).
- 4 or more whole eggs.
- 25g+ of whey or casein protein (a single scoop).
- 200g+ of cottage cheese (about 2/3 of a pot) or quark (usually about a single pot).
When you really think about it, assuming you eat a standard cadence of breakfast, lunch and dinner with a small snack in between, it wouldn’t be too difficult to add one of the above into each meal slot. Assuming your calories don’t change and your protein remains constant, you’ve just ensured that you’re getting more out of your current calorie level.
Not bad ey?
2) Protein timing
Not so long ago, nutrient timing was the hot topic online, it was something that we both believed in and ploughed hours of effort into optimising and improving. When I say nutrient timing I simply mean when you consume your protein carbs and fats, not just how much of each you consume.
As a reactionary response, now the common approach is to do away with timing of meals completely, in favour of ultimate flexibility and freedom. I suppose it’s worth noting that if as a result of ignoring protein quality and nutrient timing, you are more consistent with hitting calories and macros, then this is an improvement.
This said, I’m not sure I buy into the idea that considering what you eat and when you eat, for at least some of the day, is that much effort if you genuinely care about your results and progress.
While the post-workout window doesn’t quite deserve the hype that it used to have, there is some evidence pointing to the importance of pre and post workout protein intake specifically.
Aragon and Shoenfeld found there to be notable benefit to consuming 0.4-0.5g/kg of protein 3-4 hours apart, with a 45-90 minute training session in between. Any less protein than this taken at different intervals then it does seem that you may be running the unnecessary risk of missing out on some of the benefits of consuming protein alongside resistance training.
As an aside, they also concluded that including carbohydrate with these meals didn’t provide any additional benefit, so ditch the fancy post workout shakes and invest your money elsewhere!
Consider having 1-2 scoops of whey to bracket your training session and you’re covered.
Outside of the training window, there is also some evidence to suggest that managing the number of meals you consume per day can be “optimised”.
According to unpublished research by Stuart M. Phillips lab, which found that four meals a day was superior to both eight meals a day and two meals a day.
His team recently tested three separate groups of eight men; all consumed the same daily amount of protein, but either twice, four times or eight times per day. The four-times-a-day group had the most success, with a 30 percent higher rate of protein synthesis than the eight-times-a-day group, which in turn was slightly higher than the twice-a-day group.
Considering all of the above, your day may look like:
Breakfast – 7am – 4 whole eggs
Lunch – 12pm Salad / Sandwich with 120g+ of chicken/beef/turkey
Afternoon – 4pm – 1-2 scoops of whey protein
Training session of 90 minutes
Dinner – 8pm – meat/fish/dairy to hit protein targets
This may not seem overly complex or special (it isn’t) but with the simple framework you’ve considered all of the relevant research surrounding protein intake from the perspective of quality and timing, leaving nothing to chance.
3) What you eat does actually matter
There is absolutely no disadvantage to eating “clean” food, assuming your consistency, enjoyment and your calorie/macronutrient profile are maintained.
IIFYM seems to have encouraged the idea that because calories are king, it’s irrelevant what type of food you eat.
Well, not strictly true.
I’m yet to speak to someone who genuinely feels better eating haribo and cheesecake all day versus single, whole ingredient foods. Most would feel better on single ingredient foods with the occasional indulgence and I’ve seen many anecdotal examples of improved mental performance from maintaining this focus with clients in demanding jobs, a packet of oreos mid-morning probably won’t help you feel more sharp and alert.
There also isn’t any benefit at all to arguing over the definitions of what is “clean” and what is “dirty”, that has been done to death. However, we all have nutritional needs beyond simply calories and protein in order to perform and feel at our best, this deserves some consideration.
In some research performed by Kleiner and colleagues on contest prepping bodybuilders, many were deficient in minerals and vitamins. Without detailed accounts of their diet, it’s impossible to say exactly why this is but it shows that it isn’t difficult to fall into deficiencies a) while dieting and b) without even realising.
If you use IIFYM as an excuse to ignore the nutrient qualities of food for a long period of time, while in a calorie deficit, this could also become an issue for you.
I’m not saying that this should be prioritised over calorie management, far from it. Simply that eating only whey, Pringles and Haribo may lead to some problems down the road if you don’t apply at least some degree of management.
The benefit of a flexible diet where you prioritise the contents of the food rather than the foods themselves is that you CAN eat anything as long as it fits those targets.
This means that meals out, alcohol and the occasional indulgence aren’t an issue.
However, the only reasons someone would avoid the micro-nutrient dense options (whole foods) is due to convenience, laziness and potentially reliance or addiction.
We like to use Alan Aragon’s %s to guide decisions
- 70% intake = whole foods you love
- 10% intake = whole foods you don’t mind
- 10% intake = questionable food you love
- 10% intake = blatant junk you love
This is a very sensible way to arrange your diet and one that doesn’t encourage unhealthy attitudes to food, prioritises food quality and still allows flexibility.
70% intake therefore are main food group foods that you enjoy eating, we aren’t encouraging bland chicken and rice here.
10% whole foods you don’t mind are the plugs to fill any deficiencies (to ensure that you’re consuming one from each group of: meat, fats, fish, starch, dairy, vegetable, fruit and oils)
10% questionable foods, think burger or pizza. The component parts could be seen as whole foods but there’s a decent amount of extra calories thrown into the mix
10% blatant junk – haribo for example, foods that present no zoonutrient, phytonutrient or minerals.
A simple way to use this framework in practice is to use your MyFitnessPal as a food diary as well as just macro tracking for a few weeks. Look back over your week and bundle the meals you eat into the above categories, if you’re straying significantly outside of the suggestions, it’s time to change.
4) Considered customisation
Regardless of what advice you’ve read or heard, your diet should always reflect your personal preferences.
This means that if having breakfast makes you hungry, you don’t have to eat it.
It means that if you find a low carb approach makes you feel better, go for it.
And it means that if you want to fast until dinner, as long as you’re aware of the risks, that’s fine too.
No advice with your diet should be followed blindly, after-all, all that really matters is that it works for you. You are your own experiment and what we always suggest is that you make a change, see what happens and then make another.
For example, let’s say you wanted to see whether skipping carbs at breakfast reduced mid-morning hunger.
1) Don’t change calories
2) Measure your weight, training performance and sleep
3) Rate your hunger out of 10 at 10:30am each day
At the end of 4 weeks, look at the results. You’ll have tailored data to answer the question as it applies to you, rather than just taking the word of an online fitness professional.
5) Fun and Function
I have a phrase that I use with my clients when encouraging a balanced approach to dietary management.
“Every day, 2 meals are for function, one is for fun”
While the analogy doesn’t completely hold true, if you contrast someone who drinks alcohol on social occasions and as a way of enhancing their social life versus someone who only every drinks by themselves in the house, assuming both consume the same, who has the more healthy attitude to alcohol?
Hopefully you get the point.
With flexible dieting, we’re not trying to encourage you to gorge on cheesecake in front of the TV every evening for the sake of it, that kind of behaviour done consistently probably isn’t a sign of a healthy attitude to food and how you feel about food is something we should be paying attention to.
What I propose to clients is that meals that they can control, they control. In other words, if you’re eating out, it’s date night or some kind of special occasion, use flexible dieting to it’s extremes and don’t worry about food quality. These are meals for “fun”.
However, where-ever possible, there is no disadvantage to preparing a meal using single ingredient foods and ensuring you pay attention to fibre, protein quality and micro-nutrition too.
This isn’t to say that you make a meal you hate, hopefully there are at least some whole foods that you like to eat regularly.
Some clients like to have freedom in the evening to eat with their partner or at least the option to eat out without the need to plan etc. In these scenarios I suggest the following:
Meal 1 & 2 of the day are for “function”. Include the suggested protein feedings, include fruit and veg, fibre and sufficient water, also ensure there is a focus on workout nutrition.
Meal 3 is then for “fun”.
This way, by the end of the day, bases are covered and all that remains is to hit macronutrients and calories, all other bases are covered.
These ideas are based on the five main issues that I see with nutritional approaches when working with new clients and three mistakes I made in my own diet for a long time.
If you don’t already consider these things, managing your protein quality, considering overall food quality and measuring your own metrics to devised your own customised approach will make some big improvements to your nutrition.