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I keep saying this during conversations with clients, friends and strangers (pro tip – when you meet people while out for dinner or at a party, don’t tell them you’re a trainer unless you wanna hear their excuses for eating bad food in front of you. Ps – I don’t care, eat drink and be merry!). The conversation starts with how someone is trying to cut something out of their diet or is trying to eat better in general. We talk about what foods you can use to curb cravings or keep hunger at bay. By the end I always end up saying the same thing – food should be boring.
Variety is blessing and a curse. We can use it to maximize our nutrition by adding all sorts of fruits and vegetables for a wider range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. But we can also become a slave to change. If we don’t know how to use herbs and spices and bring new life to old staples, then the healthy meals we eat become dull. This inevitably leads us to using foods that appeal to our tongues more than anything else, like sugar, salt and fats (the deep fried kind). When in doubt, deep fry it! Am I Right? No! That was a trick question!
We have made an art form out of pleasing our taste buds by exploiting our tendency for fatty or sugary foods that long ago would replenish much needed nutrition and energy reserves during times of rarity. It’s an amazing feat really – the highly manipulated use of foods to mesmerize nations into quiet acceptance of illness – mass suicide by muffins, also known as breakfast cake.
It’s not fun to eat the same thing for lunch everyday. Trust me I get it. I love going out to eat, I truly enjoy trying new foods or new combinations and I occasionally indulge in the fatty, sweet and salty goodness that tempts everyone else. But here’s the thing, food isn’t supposed to be fun. Its meant to sustain, nourish and build community. I do think that cooking and eating together is important. Removing this part of the equation will again push us towards fast food. When we don’t know how to cook, when we grow up without the knowledge of what is good for us, or where it comes from then we end up forgoing the whole thing.
The food itself can still taste good. But it shouldn’t have to tantalize our taste buds every gosh darn meal. I truly believe we all need to find a way to live with boring – to live with less. One of the best results from trying intermittent fasting for me was to remember what it was like to be hungry. Truly hungry. I mean, I’ve been hungry here and there but rarely has it been so apparent. I usually get to the point where my body says ‘hey, I think you’re forgetting something” but not the “For the love of god, feed us” point. It puts things into perspective. It awakens this deep genetic imprint, a feeling and reaction that our ancestors lived with on a fairly regular basis. It reminds me of how many people at this very moment don’t have enough food. Those people don’t give a damn about variety, they just want to survive.
I’m not saying that we need to return to this extreme. Don’t starve yourself and don’t limit your diet to bugs and mushrooms (sounds kinda good though). But cycling your meals on a weekly or even monthly basis is a good place to start. This is very effective for weight maintenance. Why? It allows your body to balance. When your nutrition intake is predictable your body can find hormonal balance, your digestive, lymphatic and immune systems work better and cognition and mood stabilizes. Of course, this is only true if you are eating foods that have enough vitamins and minerals and fuel your activity level. But we can figure this out a lot easier if you eat the same things. If you change your meals up all the time then its harder to track where/when your deficiencies are coming from.
If you want to lose weight, eat the same meals every day. Want to bulk up? Same thing. Are you trying to balance your hormones to get pregnant? Same same! Is it boring? Hell yes it is! But I really think it does us all some good to bring it back to boring.
The key to avoid committing crimes in the name of boredom is to cycle your meals. Start with 1 week. Plan out your meals for the entire week. Keep them simple so that your prep and cooking time isn’t insane. For example, I make a bean salad every week. I eat it at lunch and dinner. The size of the portion depends on whether I have something else prepped or not. Sometimes its a side and sometimes its a main. Here is the recipe –
With this super simple meal, I get plenty of protein, fiber, slow carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and it’s cheap! Yes, if I made a baby with my girlfriend it would probably come out as a bean but I’ve become accustomed to this meal as a major staple of my diet and my digestive system loves this. When I remove it from my diet everything goes wonky.
I usually don’t eat this on the weekends. This seems to be a good cycle for me I get a bit of variety a couple days each week but the rest of the month(s) its the same. I actually look forward to it now! For those of my clients that are trying to lose weight (and we are on a macronutrient counting phase) keeping the same meals on rotation makes this whole process so much easier. We count everything out once and then they just repeat the same portion. If I try and get someone to count macros on a “free diet” it inevitably fails. Without mild OCD, almost no one can keep up this attention to detail for several weeks or months.
So, Is this sustainable? We have been reprogrammed to expect change and eat according to taste. I think it is if you don’t take it to an extreme. If you can cycle your foods 80% of the time and then allow for days or weeks where you focus on variety then you will be doing well. Once you’ve figured out your meals and taken into consideration adequate levels of macro and micronutrients you can rest easy knowing everything is accounted for and all you need to do is eat and move on. The time spent searching for a recipe is no longer an issue, you won’t be as tempted to fill your meals with easy carbs and before you know it your weight will begin to shift. As always though, if you have intense fitness goals, then you may need to be more consistent than 80%. If you don’t know how to manage your nutrients, hire someone to set out a plan for you.
Before you begin, find about 10 recipes that you really like. Try them out, experiment with spices and cooking methods to see what you enjoy the most but remember, keep it simple. Scrambled eggs are an easy breakfast. You can add vegetables and spices such as turmeric to keep things interesting. Try adding some heat! Spicy dishes release endorphins. If you find the right amount this may make a boring baked chicken into something you look forward to!
Example week for a moderately active client of mine. Portions will change for each oerson so I have not included measured amounts here.
1 day per week is a variety day – Anything goes as long as they stick to the same portions of macronutrients and include lots of vegetables. We switch up the meal plan every 2 weeks as that seems to be this clients’ particular threshold of food boredom.
Trust me, if you want results you need consistency and the easiest way to remain consistent is by keeping it simple and dropping your need for variety. Sometimes boring is best!
Is there a perfect diet? There is one for you, but it most likely does not apply to the person sitting next to you. Most people want to lose body fat while gaining or maintaining muscle mass. Lose fat/gain muscle this is the dream, right?….now where is the god damn genie to fulfill my wishes! In that joke lies the main problem, people want a quick fix. Most of my clients’ “realistic” timelines for reaching whatever goal they have is still usually only half the time needed.
And its not your fault. Its ours as trainers and nutritionists. Too many of us try to sell our services by making false promises of complete body transformations in 30 or 60 or 90 days. It’s just not going to happen that quickly, not in a healthy way that will keep the weight off permanently, or without sacrificing muscle mass and all the negative effects that come with that. So step one is going to be a commitment to slowing down.
Name me a diet and I will show you elements from it that are definitely worth incorporating into your plan. Paleo? Great but hard to sustain and lacking in certain nutrients. Keto? Has some very interesting research behind it but some people do very poorly on this diet. They all have something worth doing, but be weary if any one diet that proclaims that it is universal. Each and every diet is a marketing ploy. This article is no different. I may not be trying to sell a specific diet but I am, indirectly selling my services.
Have you heard the term “skinny fat”? Its a term used to describe someone who is slim but unhealthy. After ten years of doing physical evaluations all of the worst ones were by people who fit this description. Past clients who came to me severely overweight still had a decent amount of muscle – you need to be strong to be able to carry around a hundred pounds of extra weight! What we want to avoid is turning someone who is obese into someone who is “skinny fat”. We want to avoid the same result for people who are physically fit but want to lose 10-20 lbs. Quick fix diets tend to sacrifice muscle mass in order to obtain that overall goal of weight loss. I am not going to outline a perfect diet for you but I am going to give you some approaches you can try and adapt into your routine.
The majority of the nutritional programs I have used with clients looking to lose weight and put on or maintain muscle mass involved adding more food to the diet. I know, you are like “sign me up!” but hold on a second.
The EAT MORE rule comes with a caveat – MOVE MORE.
More is also a bit of a vague term, eat MORE GOOD FOOD is closer to what I mean. I have definitely had clients that needed an overall calorie cut. But as activity increased and intensified, the cut was fairly small as we focused on shifting the source of calories rather than just cutting. Over all, the rule stands as eating more…and moving more.
Remember this “perfect meal plan” is one based on longevity. This is not just a weight loss program. We want low body fat % (relative) and healthy muscle mass. We want to balance hormones, improve sleep and digestion. Simply losing weight is just one facet. So think about adding more food rather than just cutting some out.
CALORIES & MACRONUTRIENTS
This is your foundation. We want to figure out what your calorie count should be with regards to your activity level. A good diet is much more complicated than this but this is what we start with. How closely you follow these metrics is up to you and how specific your body composition goals are. If you want high performance, very low fat percentage and muscle gains, you are going to have to count those calories. Most of us do not need this.
JUST DO IT ONCE
Something I use for clients who are averse to counting calories is to just do it once. I ask them for 12-15 meals they like. We go over the ingredients, replace anything deemed too unhealthy and then proceed to count the calories for a couple different portion sizes. Its really not that much work. Once you have all the numbers crunched you have a very good idea as to what you can or can not eat given how many calories you are allotted that day.
A term coined by Dr. John Berardi, G-Flux is the fluctuation of energy consumed and energy expended. Increasing G-flux means increasing both sides of the equation. This is essentially the same principle as what I have been using with my clients. When you increase energy output through activity while simultaneously increasing energy input with nutrient dense food you get a much stronger, positive reaction from the body. Many of us simply cut energy input and while this may be effective for weight loss, we end up with the skinny-fat effect and then the weight comes back. When we stimulate the body with more energy expenditure you build more efficient use of the nutrients you are consuming. As muscle grows and as cardiovascular health improves, your body’s systems function better and the metabolic processes involved in fat loss are stimulated more than they would be by simply cutting calories. You become more resilient against infections, your hormones balance out, your digestive and lymphatic system become better at doing their job! Diet alone can’t do this, nor can just exercise.
So, using an online calorie calculator, go figure out what you need for someone your size, age, sex, height with accordance to your activity level. Don’t cut the calories just yet, you may even need to increase them as many of my clients have. Once you have an idea as to what your calorie count should be based on what you want to do we can find out the ratio of carbs, protein and fats.
How do you break up your macronutrients? This should fluctuate but I’ll give you an idea on how to organize it.
If you have increased your activity with some high intensity training, including strength training you will want a high percentage of proteins to help build muscle. Don’t worry, this is not going to make you bulk up. Bulking up takes a lot more effort than you think. But if you find you are getting bigger than you like, simply dial it back. You won’t ever wake up one day having ripped your wonder woman pj’s with because you got massive in your sleep. And if you do, than feel free to curse my name and send me hate mail for your brand new awesome muscles…and then cut the protein down. Start with 40% Protein
Carbs, Ew, he just said the C word. Vegetables, fruits, sweet potatoes and rice. These are all carbs and they’re just fine. Don’t go eating a bucket of rice or anything, focus on the fruits and veggies, but if you’re training hard then some yams or sweet potatoes and a fist size of rice will do you some good. Start with 35-40%
Now that fats are no longer the devils food lets all rejoice and shove some avocados in our faces. Healthy fats, you know what they are – Go get some and be generous. Start with 20-25%.
This is just the start. You can adjust the ratio as you begin to adapt to your training regimen and see how you feel throughout the day. You can also adjust day by day. On particularly heavy training days you may want to add calories, just make sure they are nutrient dense – Lean meats, fish, eggs, fruits and veggies, nuts, etc..
Training Days vs Rest Days
This is where you can play with your calorie totals as well as your macro ratio. On rest days I would drop your carb intake to 25-30% and replace the missing percentage with fats. The increase in fats will keep you satiated and help with recovery. If you have increased your total calorie count for your training days, then take 500-1000 calories out on the rest days is you are focusing on losing fat. As long as your protein count is still relatively high, you will still maintain muscle mass.
If you are trying to gain muscle weight, then don’t drop your calories. Keep them where they are but I would still adapt your macro ratio to a lower percentage of carbs.
Some point systems like weight watchers or Insulin sensitivity diets allow for you to eat almost anything you want as log as it fits in with your calorie count and/or macro ratio. I don’t love those approaches as it allows for bad habits to continue but there can be moments, like special occasions when you can adopt this way of thinking. If you are on a short vacation or out for a holiday meal, then let the calories guide you but don’t worry about the kind of foods you’re eating.
I’ve written before that sometimes taking things out of your diet is not what you need to do in order to help lose weight or gain muscle. Sometimes what you are missing are essential vitamins and minerals that will help stimulate or balance your systems. Metabolic, hormonal, immune and digestive processes are complex and they require the building blocks in order to function effectively. If all you eat is meat and bananas, some stuff is gonna be missing. So include a variety of foods and make sure it includes a variety of colours. That is always a good indicator that micronutrients are of plenty. skittles don’t count, ya goofballs.
Some key vitamins and compounds that often end up being deficient in out diets (think about supplementing) –
Zinc / Magnesium / D3 / EPA and DHA / E /
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to go get some blood tests done and see if you are deficient in anything. It could be the one missing piece of the puzzle!
YOU ARE WHAT YOU ABSORB
Speaking of tests, it should be mandatory for everyone to do food intolerance tests every few years. It is crazy how simple the tests are and what kind of dramatic effect it can have on our well being. Our ability to digest food changes over time so what one test said 7-8 years ago may no longer apply.
If you are consistently eating one or a few things that you have an intolerance to than you can expect inflammation build up. Once this happens, your digestion, immune function and cognition can all go out the window. Plus you’ll probably be in pain and you’re gonna be a fart machine – no fun for you or your friends and coworkers.
Glucose tests can also give you an ideas as to how your body processes certain foods. You may need to change your carb intake in order to level out your glucose and insulin levels.
Your ability to absorb nutrients and pass them on to help build cells and muscle tissue, fight infections, remove waste and metabolize fat all require a healthy gut. One moderate food intolerance can, over time, impede your digestive health. So get yer gut checked, and save us all from your gassy assault.
On a similar note – while on a body re-composition phase you want to eat easily digestible foods. Once you are on more of a maintenance phase, you can reintroduce certain foods that may be more difficult to digest but hold a decent amount of nutrients. For this reason, I tend to suggest a reduction or temporary elimination of legumes, soy products and most seeds from people diets.
If you avoid the harder to digest foods but maintain as much variety, you will keep a diet going that is sustainable. Paleo diet is close to what we are looking for with its focus on easily digestible foods but its fairly extreme restrictions make it hard to sustain. The Mediterranean diet is also quite close but doesn’t take into account G-Flux and so we need to take those principles (minus the hard to digest foods) and adapt it for your purposes. Limit but do not eliminate unless it is something you are intolerant or allergic to.
The term intermittent fasting (IF) is spreading like wildfire these days. Maybe for good reason, maybe not. Most of the research done is on animals and so we need to take the conclusions with a grain of salt. But what little science we do have on IF has demonstrated surprising results with regards to weight management, gut health, mood/motivation enhancement, cardiovascular health and preventing cognitive decline, cancer and neurodegenerative disease. So what is intermittent fasting? Just like it sounds, it is sporadic phases of calorie reduction. There are several different ways to practice IF, one way that has shown improvements in weight loss and insulin sensitivity is the 5-2 protocol. Where 2 days of the week, calorie restriction is practiced and the other 5 days are normal. The amount of restriction is up to you but most of the benefits seem to occur after the 16 hour mark.
I don’t always suggest 2 days a week of a strict reduction but you can try adding 1 day each week. Lets say you stop eating at 8pm on a training day and the following day is a rest day. If you go to bed at 11pm, you still need at least 13 hours of no eating. So if you sleep for 7 hours, then you can’t eat for the first 6 hours of the day. Typically I get my clients to reduce their calorie intake by about 1000 calories. If you go up to 20 hours for the fasting period then the calories restriction will most likely be even more intense. You may have another rest day for the week and on that day you can try limiting your calorie intake but taking them in throughout the day the way you normally would.
If the fasting protocol works well for you and you don’t experience any energy dip, cognitive decline, or mood imbalance, then give it a few weeks and see where you are at with your measurements.
I know we’re talking about nutrition here but one of the best things you can do for body composition goals is to get 8 hours of sleep. How to do so is for another post but if you are a good sleeper and are just going to bed later than you should…try going to bed earlier for 4 weeks and see what happens.
EXAMPLE PLAN – calorie count of 2500 – P/C/F = 40/40/20 = 1000c/1000c/500c – These are numbers based on a client of mine. You would have to calculate your own.
Training day —> Strength Training —> 2500 calories
Training day —> Strength Training —> 2500 calories
Rest day ——–> Stretching/yoga —–> IF/500-1000 calories
Training day —> Interval Training —–> 2500 calories
Training day —> Strength Training —-> 2500 calories
Rest day ——-> Total Rest/walking —-> 1500 calories
Training day —> Interval Training ——> 2500 calories
Proteins – Lean meats/fish/eggs (no legumes or soy products unless vegan/vegetarian)
Fats – Coconut oil, grass fed butter, avocados, nuts, fatty fish
Carbs – yams/sweet potatoes, rice, fruit, vegetables. Make sure to cook your mushrooms and cruciferous vegetables. You may want to avoid peas, corn, tomatoes, coconut and pineapple as those can all be difficult to digest.
Keeping with the G-Flux strategy, 2500 calories may be a surplus of calories for someone who was not training as much beforehand. But given the increase in training, we want to fuel the body and maximize efficiency within our systems. Fat loss will be slower but muscle mass will not be in jeopardy, metabolic rate will increase and so any weight that is lost will be less likely to return.
So what can you try out that we have gone over?
For help with your own customized workout and meal plan contact Joey. Online coaching available for everyone and personal training/coaching available to Montreal residents.