As soon as people hear that I’m a nutrition consultant, the first thing they ask me is what their diet should consist of. Often, they assume that I’ll name a magical diet that’s easy to follow and allows them to eat whatever they want while the fat just flies off their waistlines. I have to bring them back to reality. Dieting is hard, and looking good is hard. But not being fat…that’s actually easy (assuming you aren’t of the small population with a severe metabolic or endocrine disorder).
What do I mean it’s easy? I mean that having an average, non obese physique only requires some minor changes as opposed to the effort, dedication, and specificity of attaining a very low level of body fat while holding muscle. Yet trainers, coaches, and friends tend to dole out the same type of nutritional advice for everyone, regardless of their goals or level of dedication. So before you go regurgitate some nonsense that you hear passed back and forth between experts at your local gym, determine what level of dieter you’re talking to or working with.
Near our gym, there’s an “expert” who owns a training facility and somehow has a doctorate. I’ve been fortunate enough to have acquired a bunch of his clients, as we’re known for paying close attention to detail and helping clients work with their lifestyles. All these clients, from men to women, old to young, and inexperienced to experienced, were given the exact same diet.
The first thing they were told was, “Avoid all fruits!” Wait a minute. Let that sink in. We’re in the business of helping people get healthy and in shape, yet people are being told to completely avoid a perfectly harmless and extremely nutritious food. I’ll go out on a limb here, but I’m willing to bet that very few obese people got that way by eating fruit. Of course, anything in excess can potentially lead to weight gain or fat gain, but that’s anything. Chicken, asparagus, rice, you name it—consume an excess or surplus and weight gain will occur.
Now there are variances among different fruits. Some are higher on the glycemic index than others. The composition can also be different when comparing the type of sugar (fructose, glucose, sucrose) as well as the ratio of these. Nutrient timing also matters here. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish during certain periods.
Maybe you’re on a ketogenic diet that uses refeeds where you’ll likely view replenishing liver glycogen as a high priority for maintaining an optimal T4 to T3 conversion rate. Maybe you like your carbohydrates pre-workout and want a slight boost in insulin and a more glucose-based food to ensure that your muscles are full of glycogen and ready to push some weight. But again, these are very specific details that the majority of people don’t need to be concerned with.
I got kind of sidetracked there on fruit, but the important part here is you have to know your client or yourself. Everything you read on nutrition assumes that we all want the same thing and are all on the same level. Usually trainers who compete in bodybuilding give every single client a typical bodybuilding diet regardless of whether or not the person wants to body build. The reason being? You don’t know what you don’t know! This is all they know and unfortunately it’s the client who suffers. So before you start a diet, figure out what level of dieter you are.
Level 1: Average, overweight individual thinking of using a diet and exercise to change body composition
Maybe this is your wife, girlfriend, friend, brother, or even you. It doesn’t matter who. Don’t confuse him or her right off the bat. You don’t start with counting calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Most people don’t even know what the hell a macronutrient is. They usually think seven grams of protein is a lot and they don’t think oatmeal is a carbohydrate source.
At this level, the dieter needs to learn portion control and appetite regulation. Maybe instead of eating two bowls of cereal, he has one. This level of dieter can make progress just by making minor changes to his diet. He has a large window for improvement. You don’t want to make it too difficult, too restrictive, or too complex though because then the dieter may end up feeling hopeless and quitting. If you put him on a crazy restrictive diet, the chance of success is as likely as Aqua Man drowning.
Level 2: Individual has used exercise and small diet changes to make progress and is eager for more
Notice the italics used on “eager?” While everyone reading this may want to be herculean juggernauts with backs bulging through our shirts, not everyone has the same goals. Do you want more? Are you ready to spend some extra time on improving your body? These are important questions and you don’t have to say yes. That’s ultimately your decision. But once you’ve reached the point where you want more, you’ll start to be more aware of your food choices.
At this point, you need to start making yourself familiar with calories and macronutrients. Pay attention to how much protein is in something or how many carbohydrates it has. You should try to really focus on increasing protein intake and vegetable intake. You’ll also want to limit your intake of highly processed, calorically dense foods.
Level 3: Individual watches his diet but could do better
At this point, you’re pretty well entrenched into the fitness lifestyle. To make the next step in the development of your physique, you’ll really have to monitor calories, and macronutrient ratios will become more important. Are you hitting your protein requirements? I tend to keep people at around 0.8–1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight, depending on their goals. At this point, you know exactly how to maintain your current condition. Generally, you make food choices that keep you working toward your goal, but you’ll also allow yourself a fair deal of freedom. You should be able to find a sweet spot where you can eat sensibly yet not have to be obsessive over your diet.
Level 4: Individual has a good physique and may want to compete or just look his best ever
Now you’re down to the nitty gritty. Your proteins, fats, and carbs must be in a ratio that’s conducive to your individual metabolism. Most people have an easier time making progress with higher protein/fat intake and a moderate/low carbohydrate intake. Things like the use of supplements, fiber intake, peri-workout nutrition, and nutrient timing all play more of a role. Eventually, progress will stall and you’ll hit sticking points. But the body loves novelty. It responds very well to it. Don’t believe me? Don’t drink alcohol for a year and then go and throw some shots back. Constant exposure decreases sensitivity to a stimulus. This is why your diet setup, supplementation, peri-workout nutrition, and other factors should change as you progress. These little things start to matter more and more.
So the next time you’re talking about a diet or thinking of starting one, be realistic and keep compliance in mind.