As a long-time strength coach and personal trainer, I get lots of questions from my clients about diet and nutrition.
First off, I’m not a dietitian. I’m not a doctor (not that I think general med doctors know much about nutrition either). I don’t have advanced degrees in nutrition or dietetics. I have, however, helped hundreds of people shed excess (fatty) body weight, and I’ve done it myself several times. I believe I have, in typical Reynolds Strong fashion, a system that works. It’s simple and hard, but effective.
The first problem most people have when they start dieting is that they dramatically cut calories (and start running). This leads to an extremely effective amount of weight-loss for a month or so…and then it seems to generally lose its effectiveness. In its simplest terms, this is because – with the drastically reduced amount of calories (coupled with much higher doses of exercise) – your body begins to slow down your metabolism and save any excess energy to be stored and used when needed. So, the weight loss stops and lethargy sets in. You start to ache. You notice you are sleeping more. And when you do lose another couple pounds, you don’t think you look any better.
“Calories in vs. Calories out” just doesn’t work very well and is a somewhat antiquated way of thinking. Now, if you are eating 6000 calories a day and reduce that to 2500, will you lose weight? Of course. But outside of major swings in calorie consumption, this is far from the best way to look at “dieting.”
Is There a Better Way?
I have always prescribed nutrition changes in 3 primary steps (and we usually only need the first two)…
Step 1: Focus on Food QUALITY
It is no surprise that the “Western Diet” is full of pretty much the worst things we could ever put into our bodies: soda, sugar, white bread, chips, crackers, cookies, fast food, packaged and processed everything, processed corn and soy, and wheat everything. For most people, if they just kept their daily calories the same and switched over to much higher quality food, much like what the PALEO diet calls for, then they would see incredible improvements in performance and body composition (ie. look better naked). (Note: The Paleo diet calls for people to only eat what paleolithic man ate: meat, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds – including no grains, because grains supposedly came after the paleolithic period into the agricultural period.)
Now, I want to be clear: I do not believe 100% in the cult that is Paleo eating. I have no idea what Paleolithic man ate. I don’t even know if there was such a thing as Paleolithic man in the way we’ve been taught (think “caveman”). What I do know is that meat from fresh game that’s been hunted and killed has to be better than Taco Bell meat, right? And picking an apple off a tree that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides has to be better than those pre-packaged Mott’s Applesauce cups, or those sliced apples in the package at McDonalds (why don’t they ever turn brown??). If we simply ate foods that were as close as possible to their natural form (including grains like oats, rice, and wheat, and tubers like sweet potatoes and red potatoes), and quit eating processed sugar and other processed carbs, then we’d see the diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease rates all take a nose dive.
Step 2: Focus on Macros
Right now there is an extremely popular version of dieting called “If It Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM for short (Diets such as “The Zone” subscribe to this premise). Basically, you work with a dietitian who sets your “macro” amounts (protein, carbs, and fat) for the day, and then you weigh and measure your food to make sure you are eating just the right amount of macros each day (good dietitians will also prescribe when to eat your macros and how to partition them throughout the day – like eating more carbs around training at the gym is more beneficial, and eating slower digesting proteins and good fat is better before bed). IIFYM has been the staple diet for bodybuilders and physique athletes for decades now, and it works incredibly well. However, pure IIFYM doesn’t take into account food quality (and the great micronutrients we get from higher quality food), and therefore doesn’t really focus on health at all and only moderately on performance.
What IIFYM does do is it makes “tweaking” the diet a perfect science – and it’s very, very easy. Weight loss has stalled? Pull 25-50g of carbs out of the diet and replace those calories with the same amount of protein or fat calories (or both). Feeling really lethargic on afternoons after training? Add in some carbs or fat grams on training days at lunch and viola! We’ve fixed the problem.
What Works Best?
I firmly believe that a combo of both high quality foods, with Macro guidelines, works best. Eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible, and know, in general what your macro guidelines for each meal throughout the day should be. Then stay close. This gives the best of both worlds as you are constantly eating healthy, natural, nutrient-dense food, while being able to adjust as needed for weight loss, weight gain, performance increases, etc.
The Final Step: Cut Calories Last.
For those who are drastically overweight, or who quickly need to get lean for a bodybuilding, bikini, fitness, figure, or physique show, you will most likely still have to cut calories at some point. However, if you follow the previously mentioned protocol, men should never get to a point where they are eating 2000 calories a day, and women will never get to the point where they are eating 1000 calories a day – that’s called forced anorexia.
After several months of proper eating, through both food quality and macro guidelines, it’s not that difficult to begin pulling out a few calories (usually from carbs first, and fat second – though its dependent on the individual, and dependent on the time of day). If cutting calories are the final step to achieve your body composition goals, then a dramatic cut won’t be necessary, and will allow the body to maintain a relatively fast metabolism throughout the diet process.
However, most normal dieters within the general public will never need this final step. Following steps 1 and 2 alone will help them achieve their goals in a methodical, slow-to-moderate manner, and will facilitate lifestyle change and keep the excess weight off much better than calorie restriction alone.