As with my Training Cheat Sheet, this is a guide to help you focus on the aspects that are going to make the biggest impact on your results. The problem with keeping up with current science is that you’ll always end up at one extreme or the other, only to find out later that science is now “proving” the exact opposite of what was touted as gospel the previous year. Remember the low fat craze of the 90s? Now America is the fattest country in the world and the medical community is embracing dietary fat as essential to our well-being.
Here are a few guidelines summing up the most important aspects of all the literature out there.
Whole Foods > Packaged “Health” Foods
Anything with a health claim on the label is designed for two things only: to appeal to trendy nut jobs (look, Ma – no gluten!) and to separate you from your hard-earned money.
Stick to real food like fresh meat, eggs, vegetables, and whole grains and cut out manufactured Franken-foods with flashy packaging and sensational claims (see also: high price tag).
Home-cooking > Pre-prepared
Chef Boyardee, Stouffer’s, and Aunt Jemima don’t care if you have abs. Relying on frozen or canned meals means you’re accepting a level of nutrition that contributes to the physical majesty that is the average sedentary American.
Since you’re working toward fat loss and muscle gain, this approach is completely counterproductive. Most of these meals are so completely devoid of protein (and so completely packed with chemicals pretending to be food) that you may as well eat the box to get the same benefit.
Plus, it’s important that you know how to cook for yourself as a self-sufficient adult. No need for fancy techniques that take all day. Simple preparations and cooking methods will get you what you need and eliminate your dependence on expensive, packaged meals.
Protein > Fat/Carbs
Make protein a priority, about 30-40 grams per meal should do the trick. Keeping protein intake high will enable you to gain muscle mass, preserve muscle during fat loss, and keep you full longer. Fat and carbs deserve a place on your plate as well, but making sure you’re getting adequate protein is key.
Vegetables > Fruit
There isn’t anything wrong with fruit, but most people on a health kick go overboard. Wondering why you can’t lose weight even though you keep drinking your four banana berry smoothies every day?
Vegetables are more nutrient dense, meaning more vitamins, minerals, and fiber per calorie. Feel free to eat some fruit, but the benefits of having numerous daily servings of vegetables in your diet cannot be overstated. Be reckless in your consumption of vegetables.
Fresh/Frozen Produce > Canned
Green beans are supposed to be green, and I’m not talking about the murky swamp sludge color that comes out of a can. Opting for fresh or frozen produce packaged shortly after harvest preserves vitamins and minerals, giving you the greatest nutritional bang for your buck.
Eating veggies may not always be a thrilling experience, but at least make it worth the effort by selecting high quality options.
Monitoring Quality > Monitoring Caloric Intake
It still holds true that to lose weight you must expend more calories than you burn, and vice versa. But for people just starting out, it’s more important to get in the habit of eating the right foods first. Taking action on this one simple step tends to sort out overeating and any nutritional imbalances you may have, stopping unnecessary weight gain all by itself.
In the beginning, you want to get yourself into a pattern of choosing whole foods over bullshit, preparing them at home, and excluding the majority of junk that used to make its way into your mouth. Once you have a handle on that, you can begin fine-tuning macronutrient ratios and determining daily caloric intake. What’s important to remember right now is that 2,500 calories of shit is still shit.
Food > Supplements
I often hear people say, “I’m waiting for my supplements to arrive before I get back in gym.” That’s complete nonsense. If your training and diet aren’t in line, supplements are totally useless.
I like to think of supplements as the icing on the cake. If you’re doing everything else right, supplements can be useful for convenience and making sure you’re squeezing everything you can out of your training sessions. But when considering all of the components that go into creating a fit physique, I can assure you that supplements make up no more than 5% of what’s truly important.
Things to keep in mind
The take-away here is that, to achieve optimal body composition, you should be eating whole foods, prepared at home and focus on getting fresh meat and vegetables at every meal. Not as exciting as the advertisements you’re bombarded with every day, but a hell of a lot more effective and practical. Now fire up the grill and get those steaks going!