This is for those of you who have made up your mind to get your nutrition in check but don’t know exactly where to start. I don’t blame you; it can be pretty overwhelming. Start searching the interwebz for dietary advice, and you will be opening the door to a torrential tsunami of information (a lot of it based on little more than opinion or hearsay) when all you really need is a few little drops to get started (he says at the beginning of a 5,000 word article).
No matter where you go, it seems like you can’t get away from people spewing from the belfries about how this diet is better than that diet, and that macronutrient will make you fat, and this macronutrient will give you heart disease, and that thing will give you cancer. Paleo. Atkins. The Mediterranean diet. Intermittent fasting. Veganism. Success stories and horror stories abound for every single one of them. But guess what? In our browsing of all the different dietary styles we can adapt, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Before you get too carried away in minutia, we need to talk about what may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to succeeding with a nutrition strategy: preparation.
Setting the science aside for a moment (I will delve more into the merit of different dietary strategies in the future), the diet that’s probably going to work best for you right now is the diet that you’re going to be able to stick to. Whether or not there are benefits to ketogenic dieting doesn’t really matter so much if you end up eating five or six donuts four times a week while you’re “doing the keto thing.” Consistency (both in the gym and in the kitchen) is a critical factor for accomplishing your goals, and being prepared makes being consistent a hell of a lot easier. I’ll break this down into two phases: 1) planning, and 2) food prep. But first…
A Lightning Round Review
The purpose of this article is to help you learn a framework for devising and executing a nutrition plan to help get you to your goals. It is not intended to be a review of the science of nutrition, but I also don’t want to launch into telling you how to plan a diet without making sure that you know some of the fundamental building blocks. So, VERY briefly:
- We are going to be talking mostly about the three macronutrients: carbohydrates (carbs), fats, and proteins.
- Carbohydrates consist of various kinds of sugars and starches (e.g. fruits, rice, etc.) and contain ~4 Calories per gram. Following ingestion, most carbs require minimal processing before they can enter the blood as glucose (the sugar that is taken into our cells via elevated insulin signaling), making them a quick, easy source of energy, which can either be metabolized upon uptake for performance or stored for future use through the generation of both muscular or hepatic glycogen and adipose tissue.
- Fats are largely broken down into the categories of unsaturated (which means they have kinks in their fatty acid chains due to the absence of one or more hydrogen atoms along the hydrocarbon backbone; these are mostly oils at room temperature and are found in things like olive oil and nuts) and saturated (no such kinks; often solid at room temperature and found in animal fats, coconuts, etc.), both of which serve vital roles in maintaining things like cell membrane integrity and hormonal health, just to name a few. Containing ~9 Calories per gram, fats are the most energy dense of the macronutrients. Unfortunately, probably largely due to dyslipidemia (out of whack lipoprotein, or “cholesterol” levels) in unhealthy populations, fats have gotten a bad rap over the past couple decades. Saturated fats have basically been demonized. I’d like to write more about this, but to speed us back to the point of the article, I’ll just encourage you to not fear the fat. It is crucial for healthy body function, and For the Love of Lifting, fat does NOT intrinsically make you fat. Fat is an energy source. Excess energy is what can induce fat storage (if you aren’t giving the body better things to do, like move heavy things and build muscle tissue instead).
- Proteins are comprised of amino acid chains and are the only nitrogen-containing macronutrient. Like carbs, they contain ~4 Calories per gram, but they are much less easily directly utilized as an energy source (certain amino acids can be metabolized into glucose, but this takes time and energy). Protein provides us with the amino acids our cells need to crank out new proteins for a ridiculously wide variety of functions (enzymes, ion pumps, receptors, muscle fibers, etc… a lot comes from protein!). If you’ve been reading my other work, you have already heard me ramble about how great protein is. Just eat it, already!
So what do you do with this information? Well, there are many diets that emphasize either carbs or fats as being the solution to everything from fat loss to disease prevention. While I could (and probably will) dive into the nit-picky details of all of this in future writings, for now, know that plenty of people have tremendous success with eating balances of these nutrients, and that is what I am going to recommend for a beginner. Once you have read this article and become adept at controlling your diet, feel free to try something like a ketogenic diet, but if you do this before you are really good at being consistent with a less restrictive diet, you might be setting yourself up to fail.
Planning the Perfect
Okay. Maybe (definitely) not perfect. But anyways… When I say planning, I mean actually devising (and maybe even writing down!) some solid meals that you will be able to prepare for the week ahead. When planning meals, you CAN hop onto something like MyFitnessPal (or just Google nutrition labels) and add up all your planned Calories/macros with razor precision, but I’m not a huge fan of Calorie counting most of the time (I’ll explain in a second). Yes, tracking caloric intake more carefully can be a good idea when you are very deliberately pursuing a specific, sensitive goal. For example, I mentally tracked my caloric intake when I was doing the little cutting experiment I wrote about here. BUT… Counting Calories can be tedious and off-putting (especially for beginners), and a lot of people get burnt out pretty fast when things seem overly complicated.
Instead, you can make things a lot simpler and save yourself from agonizing over minutia by just planning meals that revolve around eating mostly whole foods that consist predominantly of the macros you want for that meal. For example, let’s say you lift in the afternoons after work and want to have carbs around that time. You could plan a breakfast and lunch of mostly protein and fat (e.g. eggs for breakfast and some meat and veggies for lunch), a pre-lift snack of carbs and protein (e.g. fruit, oats, and whey), a dinner with protein and carbs when you get home (e.g. meat and potatoes…ha!), and a bedtime snack of protein and fat (e.g. cottage cheese and almond/peanut butter). If you are lifting hard and taking this kind of approach, you’re probably going to have some pretty awesome results without fretting too much over exactly how many Calories you’re taking in. Instead of worrying about whether you are above or below what a calculator says your total daily energy expenditure SHOULD be (there are several reasons why these could be inaccurate for individuals to start with), you can just monitor visually and occasionally check your weight. If you’re gaining weight (and it looks to be more fat than muscle; more on how to tell what rate of weight gain/loss is advisable here), simply take a little bit out of one or two of your meals (e.g. less rice or oils with lunch). If you aren’t gaining weight and want to be, simply add a bit more to one or two meals each day (e.g. more rice or oils with lunch). Voila.
This might sound all well and good, but where do we actually start off with our planning? Well, if it hasn’t become clear yet from all of the things I’ve written about the muscle-building/sparing superpower of dietary protein, I’m usually most concerned with protein intake when it comes to composing any kind of diet. Luckily, the idea here is pretty simple: get enough of it. Depending on exact goals and preferences, you could make arguments for a small range of intakes, but I recommend just aiming for close to 1 gram of protein per pound of (lean-ish) body weight no matter what you are doing (trying to lean out, build muscle, or just get more physically active). Protein is the one macronutrient I will tell you to specifically count out at the start to make sure you are getting enough. Aside from getting enough protein, the other suggestion I’ll make is trying to concentrate most of your carb intake around the time that you lift (this just helps many people with maintaining their energy in the gym). So, start building the plan around protein sources that you like. I’d recommend at least one meat-containing meal each day (or fish, if you distinguish between the two for whatever reason), but other good options (especially if you don’t eat meat) include eggs (whole eggs! yolks are delicious AND nutritious!), dairy (hard cheeses, milk, greek yogurt, cottage cheese), powders (whey is inexpensive and quite useful for easily getting in more protein), and, to some extent, nuts, just to name a few.
Once you have picked out the protein sources you want to base your meals around, pick a few carbohydrate and/or fat sources to pair them with (I typically refrain from having large amounts of fats and carbs in the same meal). For carbs, I prefer oats, potatoes, white rice (*gasp*), and fruits (especially berries… nom nom nom). There are plenty of other choices out there, like quinoa, sweet potatoes, honey, pasta, and so on and so forth. Like I mentioned above, you might find that having a lot of your carbs shortly before and after you lift will help you feel energized, but this will probably not make or break you if it makes your planning more difficult. If you lift in the mornings but want to have pasta for dinner, that’s fine! Consistency comes first and foremost. For fat sources, I like almond butter, avocados, olive oil, butter, and coconut oil, but I also take in some of my fat through meat (especially bacon) and eggs. Again, there are plenty of choices out there. Given the current hysteria about it, I think the topic of saturated fat needs to be saved for an article of its own, but for now I will try to stay on topic and just settle for saying that, for relatively healthy, exercising individuals, I think that the fear of saturated fat has been blown way out of proportion. For those of you who don’t believe that, I’ll write about it in detail in the future and try to convince you! Meanwhile, I’ll keep eating my butter and bacon. Huzzah!
If you’re like me and don’t mind eating basically the exact same thing every damned day of your existence (see demonstrative picture above), this entire process gets a lot more simple: find meals that work for your schedule, desired macros, and palate, and then eat them. Every day. Boom! While some (probably many) people can’t stand the repetitiveness of eating this way, it really makes it easy to always be ready with your next meal. The added beauty of this is that when you want to make adjustments (i.e. if you are trying to shed some fat or build some new mass), all you have to do is add or subtract something into your daily routine. If you’re eating the same thing every day, you know that when you add, say 1/2 cup of rice to your lunch, you have reliably upped your caloric intake. No reason to count Calories, and no great amount of thinking required! This was actually pretty much the extent of my dietary manipulation in the last six or seven weeks of my cut. My lunches gradually went from containing two cups of cooked white rice to none at all over that course of time. Everything else stayed almost exactly the same (I dropped my morning banana along the way too). So there ya go, you now know my secret to dietary manipulation: keep it super simple, and adjust one thing at a time.
This is all well and good for a bland-mouth like me, but what if you need more variety? After all, they say it’s the spice of life. Like I alluded to before, the most convenient way to keep a good plan in place but to not just eat the same thing for all of eternity is to have a kind of roster of meals that you can rotate through that fill a certain purpose (e.g. protein/fat meals, protein/carb meals, etc.). Keep a list (mentally or physically) of these, and use them as modules (swapping out meals with similar macronutrients for one another) to build your daily intake and keep things fairly consistent. For example, one week you might have, say, pork loin and green beans for lunch each day, and the following week you could instead have chicken salad with nuts or olive oil. A couple other variations of this idea if you really need more variety: 1) Prepare two different meal batches at the beginning of the week so that you can alternate between, say, two different lunches every other day, and 2) Have a set routine for most meals for the week (e.g. breakfast, lunch, preworkout snack), but take the time to cook a different dinner every day or two. Don’t go overboard and order a pizza for dinner every night necessarily, but give yourself a little wiggle room if it helps you stick to your guns for the rest of your meals.
Speaking of ordering pizzas every night, I also want to emphasize that I am not advocating eating nothing but bland salad and plain chicken breast day in and day out. I made the general recommendation that you try to build your meals around whole foods, but that’s not a hard rule that need always be followed. It is possible to get shredded while still eating pizza; it’s just more difficult for several reasons, not the least of which being the need for portion control and iron willpower. If you want to still eat the foods you love, do it! If you want to do it while meeting your physique goals, you just have to be honest with yourself about how much you are indulging and whether you are allotting space for that indulgence elsewhere. Furthermore, if you take the time to experiment with different ingredients and spices, it isn’t too hard to make pretty delicious food that is “healthy,” (I kind of hate using this word to describe food without putting it into any real context) or physique friendly.
What I am trying to describe here is not a temporary diet plan, but a general framework for approaching nutrition throughout a lifetime. If you look at how you are eating and can’t stand the thought of still doing something very similar a year or two down the road, then it might not matter if you hit your goals now, because you might end up just letting everything slide after the fact. No one ever plans to do this, of course, yet it happens (I don’t agree completely with the interpretation and conclusions of these authors, but they got a count of long term diet success by reviewing a lot of the literature available at the time; also note that this is pertaining to obese individuals) to a LOT of people who lose weight or change their bodies on uncomfortable diets. A lot of times, people who rely on snappy, unsustainable diets actually gain more weight following the diet than they lost while dieting. This has led some to the conclusion that dieting doesn’t work, but I will submit a counter-hypothesis: unsustainable dieting doesn’t work. Learning to eat well and be consistent with your diet for the long haul? Unless you are living outside of the realm of human physiology, that should work just fine, and the most realistic way to do that is to learn how to enjoy your food while sticking within a framework that is appropriate for your goals.
In short, be conscious of your food choices and their utility in meeting your goals, but also don’t forget to live your life! If your friends are all going out to dinner, you don’t have to decline or have a salad to keep your diet in check. If you want to go ham and have a double bacon cheeseburger with fries or some chicken alfredo or whatever, you’re not going to die. If you really don’t want to rock the boat diet-wise, you can always remove some of the calories from the rest of your daily intake (e.g. no potatoes at lunch and no nut butter with your bedtime snack). If you’re in the process of trying to add weight, enjoy the extra Calories for that one day! The key thing here is to not do this every day (what? moderation? *hiss*). This is much easier if you have strong impulse control. If you are prone to turn a treat into a week-long binge, you are probably going to need to be more stringent with controlling your diet if you want to reach your goals. Again, just be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish and how much it is worth to you. Now, let’s move on to how we actually put our plan into action.
Batch Cooking (AKA Meal Prep) Saves Diets
Batch cooking is not exactly revolutionary. Want to have something you cook last you for more than one meal? Cook more of it! To what end? Well, having meals prepared and portioned out ahead of time will hopefully keep the number of times you find yourself thinking, “Ah, hell. Might as well just order takeout,” down to a minimum. Getting food ready seems a lot less daunting when it’s sitting there in a container, ready to be eaten (maybe heated first, depending). Hopefully we’ve satisfactorily covered how to keep some variety in your diet, but if you happen to have a thing against eating leftovers and want to keep a steady, consistent diet, you’re going to have to either spend a lot of time making meals every day (which is fine if you enjoy it!) or get creative in coming up with meals that are really quick and easy to prep, like my bedtime snack in the picture below. It might not be overly aesthetically pleasing, but it tastes great, stocks me full of protein and fat going into the sleeping hours, and only takes a minute to whip up each night.
Assuming you are down with the whole eating leftovers bit, once you have your meals planned out for the week, it’s just a matter of doing your grocery shopping and then getting everything ready to go. For most people, doing meal prep on a Sunday seems to work pretty well (it seems like it’s a time-honored tradition for a lot of lifters and bodybuilders). I’d recommend at least having a pretty good idea of what you need to make the meals you want for the week before you do your shopping just because it’s pretty easy to get sidetracked at grocery stores and start impulse buying things left and right, especially if you are shopping when you are hungry—something I would try to avoid. As for quantities, just take what you think will be a good amount for one meal, multiply it by how many meals you want to make (say 5 if you’re prepping lunches or what-have-you for the week, or 6 or 7 if you want extra servings for that day or going into the next weekend).
From there, get that precious food cargo home and cook it up (or whatever the meal calls for). If you don’t have a good set of food containers, I’d say it’s worth grabbing a set. I like to use the big Pyrex bowls with lids, but anything that has walls and a lid (and sufficient volume) should probably do. Equally portion out your batch of prepared food into your containers, and throw ’em in the ‘fridge. There you go, lunch (or whatever meal) is ready for the whole week. No excuses for dropping the ball in the middle of the week because you didn’t have time to pull something together the previous night. All you have to do is grab a container each morning and go.
As for how much prep you need to do and which of your meals you need to prep ahead of time in order to stay consistent, that depends on you and your schedule. Because I lift in the mornings and my pre-, intra-, and postworkout nutrition is all quick and easy to assemble when I wake up, the only meal I need to have fully prepped and ready to go for each weekday by the beginning of the week is lunch. I cook chicken for my dinners in portions that will feed me for 4 meals (just because that happens to be how much a 2.5 pound bag of tenderloins conveniently feeds me for) but usually cook up whatever vegetables I’m having with dinner every two or three days. I don’t mind doing this because I have it down to a routine that never requires more than 5-10 minutes of me actually doing stuff in the kitchen to get dinner ready. Lastly, like I mentioned above, I have a bedtime snack that is quick and easy to prepare.
You will need to find what works best for you. Prepping lunches ahead of time seems to be a necessity for most people on a typical work schedule, but if you lift in the afternoon and don’t have much time to prepare food in the mornings, you might need to also have your breakfast and preworkout snack packed and ready to go when you wake up in the morning. It might seem excessive, but if you need to, try to get all of those meals ready to go at the beginning of the week (at least the ones that will keep in the refrigerator). You might start off with good intentions, but if you plan on prepping meals for each day during the preceding night, you run the risk of coming home at some point in the week and just being too tired to deal with it, and from there, things can start to fall apart. Have a plan and make adequate preparations, and you will find success! Having a plan B in place is never a bad idea either (e.g. keeping a couple Quest bars or something along those lines at work juuuust in case). Get your preparation game down pat, and maintaining consistency with your diet will become an easy, natural part of your day!
Where to Go from There
Learning to be consistent with your diet through planning and preparation is of the utmost importance when you’re getting started. Again, if you’ve never thought much about your nutrition and all of this planning seems a little bit overwhelming, I highly suggest you start off by keeping things as simple as possible (i.e. finding a couple tasty options and sticking to them for a month or two before you worry about starting to add more variety while keeping things relatively consistent). Once you’ve gotten a decently stable dietary routine put together, you’ll find that it becomes easier as time passes to do things a little more on-the-fly without flying off the handle completely.
In terms of making adjustments to how you’re eating, I will reiterate that in my experience, small, gradual changes work best most of the time. Decide you want to trim a little bit of body fat? Reduce or remove a small component of one of your meals (e.g. less rice with lunch, or lose the tablespoon of butter from your dinner vegetables), monitor your body by visual appearance and weight for changes, and adjust accordingly. Decide you want to add more mass after hovering at a certain weight for a while? Apply the same logic, only this time by adding food in (e.g. part 2 – more rice with lunch, or an extra tablespoon of butter with your dinner vegetables). When you are first making these changes, it might be prudent to make a slightly larger bump (200-300 Calories) to jump-start things, and then move down to smaller increments/decrements after that. Again, don’t worry too much about tinkering with things in this fashion until you have really gotten into the groove and are consistently eating the way you want to be eating. Get the basics down first!
As you master these skills, you’ll gain a whole new level of understanding for how your body uses the nourishment you provide—what makes you feel strong, what helps you grow or lean out, and what generally works for you as you pursue your goals. Personally, I think the entire process is a blast once you start to figure out what you’re doing. You get to be the master of your own nutrition. Whereas food only serves two purposes (survival and pleasure) for some, it will gain the dimension of utility in your eyes. Utility for getting stronger, more muscular, leaner… Whatever it is that you want to accomplish with your body, the solution lies in the kitchen as much as in the gym. For you, it can all start with learning to lay out a plan of action and put in the preparations to make that plan a reality.
Let me know in the comments below if you have stories about diets you’ve tried in the past or questions about setting up a nutrition plan! As always, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, then please, For the Love of Lifting, spread the word!
A Few Quick Tips and Suggestions
- If money is tight, here are some examples of foods that pack a good amount of nutrition per dollar spent: eggs, whole milk, peanut butter (I prefer almond, but it is more expensive), olive oil, oats, kale, bananas, coconut oil, and butter (I like Kerrygold’s salted butter if you can find it). Meat can vary price-wise pretty drastically depending on where you buy it and how many “organic, all-natural, cancer-curing” claims have been stamped onto the package, but you can usually find ground turkey and chicken breasts/tenderloins for relatively cheap in most places.
- If you want an easy, on-the-go breakfast, try putting some oats in a container with your liquid of choice (milk, water, almond milk, etc.) and whatever other ingredients you want (e.g. berries, whey, nuts, cinnamon, coconut flakes, chia seeds, etc.) and throwing the whole thing in the ‘fridge before you go to bed. The oats will soak up the liquid overnight, and in the morning you’ll have a cold (you can microwave it if you want) breakfast porridge ready to be eaten! Add greek yogurt or whey to make sure you’re starting off the day with some protein too!
- Following up on the morning porridge idea, protein powders can be added to a lot of meals (e.g. with cottage cheese or in smoothies) to help you get to your target protein intake for the day.
- Greek yogurt can also be used as a higher-protein substitute to things like sour cream and cream cheese (not that I have any problem with either of these foods.. I love me some cream cheese; I just find that many people tend to struggle to hit their daily protein intake more than anything else).
- If you like salsa, it’s a great way to add flavor to meals without changing the macronutrient content of the meal very drastically.
- Eating vegetables won’t necessarily totally make or break you performance-wise, but they are a good way to get in fiber for maintaining gastrointestinal function and also for increasing the sense of satiety you get from meals (not to mention whatever micronutrients and phytonutrients you’ll find in your vegetables of choice, which shouldn’t be overlooked). I like to sauté peppers and onions and such for a lot of my lunches, and I also eat a fair amount of broccoli and green beans with my dinners. If it’s just not happening for you on some days, consider getting some fiber with things like ground flax seeds, chia seeds, or psyllium husks (it’s easy to throw flax and chia seeds into pretty much any dish).
- As briefly mentioned throughout the article, the couple overarching suggestions I will make for a beginner are:
- Try to have a protein source with each meal (totaling up to about 1 gram of protein per pound of lean-ish body weight per day)
- Try having a lot of your carbs for the day shortly before and after you lift (this is not a hard rule; a lot of people just feel better when they are training with carbs)
- Try to have your fats for the day with the meals that contain less carbs (again, not a hard rule)
- Phillips, S.M., Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 2012. 108(S2): p. S158-S167.
- Mann, T., et al., Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 2007. 62(3): p. 220-233.