Improving Diet

I remember reading an old article in Iron Mind — maybe it was by John McCallum, but it could have been Ken Leistner — about being young, training hard, and eating big. The author talked about how they would work during the day, train in the evening, then head over to a local diner to eat cheese burgers and milk shakes. He also discussed how they made weight gaining shakes with milk, cream, chocolate syrup, and protein supplements. It’s such a glorious concept; eating what society calls junk food and getting big and strong.

But lettuce be real tea, this won’t last forever. Either you won’t stay 19 forever or you’ll end up chubby. If you think that being marginally stronger and plenty more fat is worth it, that’s fine, but let’s get serious. The percentage of professional athletes and world contendors (who might sacrifice body weight for performance) I know is pretty low; everyone else owes it to themselves to not be sloppy-fat for pride and health reasons. “But what about guys like Paul Anderson?” If you were Paul Anderson (or any other strong-fat guy) you would have fucking known it by now. It’s okay to say, “I want to look good/better/great and still be strong.” Really, it isn’t a big deal. Anyone making a big deal about it inherently doesn’t care about what you want out of your training.

The other day someone asked what their numbers needed to be in order to “dial in” their diet. Much like there is no strength requirement to advance, there is no absolute number to get to before making better food choices. Just becuase food quality increases doesn’t mean the macros or calories have to decrease. Eating high caloric food is easy because it’s readily available. As Johnny Pain’s e-book SWOLE points out, it takes effort to eat better and still make good mass gains.

You are not big boned, ma'am

I’m not a zealot about anything nor am I a diet groupie. Different types of people will require different things, yet it will typically funnel into some basic concepts. If I had to say my ‘nutrition methodology’ revolves around an existing diet, it would side loosely with the Paleolithic Diet. The food choices in a Paleo set up are of the highest quality, meat is aplenty, fat intake is high, and carbs aren’t superfluous. I see it as the end goal for most people to shift into to age with; it just makes sense that eating the most nutrient dense food sources and eliminating synthetic chemicals would yield optimal health. However, I don’t hardline the rules like a zealot and am okay with having leeway. I don’t support whining about feeling sick after eating some ice cream or making a group of people change their dinner plans because you’re frightened over the potential gluten exposure. And when training hard, you’ll sometimes need something more than what a caveman scrounged up for his hairy wife.

But what’s more important than the end product are the steps that are taken to get there. In all the time I’ve been training people, eating seems to be the hardest habit to change, and the fatter the person, the worse it is. People who can make heaps of changes all at once are rare, and instead I recommend that most go through phases. These phases should be followed until their contents become habit. As always, it’s variable based on the person, but I tried organizing it logically. Don’t fucking spend a lot of time worrying and analyzing the order of everything; look at the general trend over time from simple to more complex.


Phase I
– Stop eating processed food (condiments still fine, yogurt fine)
– Stop soda
– Limit milk (or drop it completely if you’re fat)

Phase II
– Cook more meat
– Improve the quality of carbohydrates (single-ingredient sources like oats, rice, whole grain stuff along with obvious tubers/fruit/veggie)
– Increase water intake

Phase III
– Increase fat intake (good oils, nuts, cream, butter, etc.)
– Get consistent with eating times
– Time food intake with respect to training

Phase IV
– Reduce the less natural carbs (like rice and noodles) and get them primarily from tubers, fruits, veggies
– Stop eating chemical sweeteners

Phase V
– Adjust macros for goals (long-term)
– Learn to adjust macros for body fat and weight changes (short-term)

Phase VI
– Tweak specifics for health (e.g. lowering carbs, sodium or fructose to decrease blood pressure)

That’s kind of a lot of stuff, huh? Sure it is. And you’re not going to be able to handle it all right now, so stop worrying about it. Instead, use a progression like I laid out here. If you’re thinking, “Oh shit, what is my blood pressure? What if it’s high?” and you haven’t even stopped eating packaged bullshit foods, then you clearly need to clean things up. Worrying about being fat while still drinking soda should be a no-brainer. That’s like worrying about pleasing a woman in bed when you haven’t even talked to her yet.

Keep in mind that the phases above not only represent general progressions over time, but they aren’t hardlined. For example, let’s say I’m cleaning up my carb sources. Does that mean I never have a hamburger? Fuck no, I’m a bacon cheeseburger connosieur (I’ve eaten 14 in a 5 day period), but I’m not going to eat one every day.

Again, some of these will be more important for certain people. I know how to eat something different to increase my body weight or decrease my body fat. This might be relevant to a military personnel or some dude who is adjusting his body fat. Either way, it’s going to be easier once the basics are taken care. Taking care of the basics and using a good training program will typicall result in a person with decent amounts of musculature and body fat. Having a better diet, more muscle mass, and less body fat are all individual markers of an improved metabolism; in other words they augment the body’s ability to perform more efficiently and reduce fat.

There’s a lot of you who need to read stuff like this to actually start making a change, so hopefully it acts as a catalyst of improvement.

58 thoughts on “Improving Diet

  1. @Justin

    I would argue that any observations of carb-cut offs actuating a reduction in body-fat is mistakenly attributed to the the carb cut-off; when it is in fact simply the result of the inadvertent reduction of total calories that tends to accompany carb-restriction.

    Lower carb or low carb, Paleo is bullshit. We’ll just have to agree to disagree Justin. I still love you and 70s big.

  2. lol, fair enough Justin; I am certainly being skeptical.

    It’s just that I try to absorb as much information as I can in order to be constantly learning, and I’ve always heard Paleo touted as a low (or no) carb diet. Then I’ve got other people (like you) saying that carbs are necessary for training. It’s got me somewhat puzzled. I do like the idea of keeping processed food intake to a minimum, though.

    Out of curiosity, what would you say your main sources of carbs are, and how does your carb intake compare to your protein intake (in grams, or whatever).

  3. Anyone have thoughts/opinions on the Ketogenic diet? I’ve been running one for the last six weeks or so and have been enjoying it greatly. I’m hoping it will let me get down another 10-15% in BF (currently at 33%, 275 pounds) over the next few months.

  4. I posted this shit a while back, but I think it’s relevant here:

    Sugar: The Bitter Truth
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

    It’s a video that is along the lines of Taubes’ book, that a calorie is not a calorie and the prevailing cause of obesity and diabetes in our society is the overuse of fructose. Since it’s in about everything that’s processed, I totally agree with Justin that eliminating processed foods should be #1 when fat loss is an issue.

  5. @jords

    I disagree. I dropped nearly 30 pounds of body fat while significantly increasing my strength and muscle mass while on a very strict paleo diet over the course of a six month deployment. I can tell you that it was not because of a drop in caloric intake. I had to increase my caloric intake by at least 1000 calories a day to account for the heavy lifting, heat, and hard work from being deployed.
    Relying strictly on vegetables, fruits and tubers as your primary carbohydrate source pretty much forces you to be constantly stuffing your face with food.
    I think you are mistaken about the basic premise of the paleo diet as well. Paleo isn’t a “low carb” diet, it is a “carb-type” diet. I didn’t lower my carb intake on paleo–instead I changed what type of carb I ate. Instead of eating grains, I ate fruits, vegetables, tubers and nuts. Because a bowl of broccoli isn’t as carb dense (but more nutrient dense) than a bowl of rice, I had to eat that much more broccoli to keep my carb ratio high enough to properly recover and build muscle.
    Because I changed the type of carb, but not the quantity, I was able to drop fat while building muscle on the paleo diet. There are many reasons grains are not good for you, and eliminating them on a strict paleo diet (even when not reducing your carbs or calories) is a fast and effective way to drop body fat.

  6. ^ no offense but this is exactly what I’m talking about here.

    How do you know you gained LBM while losing fat? How can you even know that? Did you do regular BF tests or something? I’m not trying to be an asshole, it’s just that in my experience people always claim they lost fat and gained weight (how?) on some rad new diet when really they lost bodyfat, and the resulting exposure of musculature makes them think they gained muscle, too. Idk. /rant

  7. First time poster. Justin, I love the site. A lot of great reading is on here that is useful in the battle against bro science. I will start trying to post more often.

    Anyone who has eaten paleo can tell you that carb source can make drastic changes in water weight/retention. I’m pretty strict paleo+milk, but I make sure to eat a lot of sweet potatoes to help with recovery. This doesn’t make me feel bloated. However, if I were to have some rice, sugar, or breaded & fried meat (it happens occasionally) I am going to feel like crap from bloating. I really wish I had an explanation for why sweet potatoes don’t cause bloat but white rice does.

    I will admit that paleo is definitely an inadvertent calorie restricted diet. When I first started it, I was following a standard crossfit routine (I’m on CFFB now) and 15 lbs fell off me, I wasn’t trying to lose weight. This summer I gave SS some time and put back on 10 lbs of muscle. Honest to God could not have been done without whole milk (2-3 gallons/week). Protein and fat are way too satiating to get >2000 calories if you are only eating til you are full. Especially if your carb sources are green leafy things that you have to eat by the quart to get any substantial calories from. It is a very strange feeling to not have a food baby but still have to hold down dinner as you try to finish all of it.

    Note: I’m not saying paleo is the perfect diet. I don’t really care if you want to try it or not.

    @antigen

    Did you hear that bit about how processed grains are less of a gut irritant than whole grains off the Robb Wolf podcast a while back? While true in that respect, I suspect processed grains would make you feel just as bad as whole grains due to their increased glycemic index. A large swing in blood sugar tends to make me feel like crap.

    Justin-

    In your experience how important are macros? I don’t generally track mine, I just try to make sure I get plenty of all of them. I think the zone (40Carb/30Pro/30Fat) is starting to come out as working because having to eat 40% of your calories from green leafy things is definitely going to keep you full. But bodybuilders swear by them over food quality (“if it fits your macros”). Future blog post?