The Forgotten Foundation of Dieting

Mainstream media has people thinking they’re one step away from nutritional disaster. It uses soundbite science and alarmism to spread its agendas and separate you from your hard earned money. Little attention is paid to information integrity. It’s not what’s best or correct – rather it’s what will sound flashy and make the most money. This mode of operation bears a slew of rigid rules and warnings that leave consumers frozen in their tracks.

Novel ideas sound cutting edge so they generate excitement. Excitement drives hope. Hope leads to sales and all the while people forget about the basics.

Frankly, the marketers and media are feeding off of your desperation. The very same desperation that they’ve helped create. They’ve managed to generate the perfect storm for selling opportunities. So many rules have been concocted by them that people are cross-eyed confused. Because people are so confused, they lack conviction and in turn they rarely stick to one particular way of eating for very long. And as soon as something new hits the marketplace, they’re hopping on the bandwagon hoping they’ve finally found The Way.

It’s a seller’s dream.

Rules are what people want – they’re what sell – so the industry is establishing them at ridiculous rates regardless of how effective they are. Not only are they creating what I’ll call food fear, but they’re also generating loads of unnecessary anxiety and defiance.

People are afraid of food the same way that little children are afraid of gremlins. Except these gremlins don’t chase and bite you. Instead they’ll add 20 pounds of fat with a side of cellulite merely by touching you.

This problem is highlighted perfectly by nearly every client who comes through the doors of my gym. They’ve a track record of a dozen or so diets they’ve tried in the past unsuccessfully. You see things like the Paleo, Alkaline, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Blood Type and the Zone diets. And this is only the tip of a very large iceberg. Anything you can imaginatively whip up in terms of how to eat has probably been packaged in some sort of diet plan.

All that these diet programs are really doing is tricking you into eating less. And that’s just it – the problem is people are losing site of the big picture. Needless to say, clients are typically surprised when I explain that I don’t subscribe to any one particular diet philosophy. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. In a culture where absolutes are the driving force behind most advertisements, their surprise is understandable.

I contend that we put an end to the inundation and shortsightedness. It’s time to strip away all of the clutter that has amassed. Forget everything you “know” and let’s start fresh. I’d like to break nutrition down into a list of very basic rules. By clearing the fog maybe then we can kill the anxiety and phobias so many dieters have. Bringing things back to a sensible baseline will seem silly to some I’m sure. The list of rules will seem too obvious and simplistic. So let’s try to frame the rules with logic first.

The Pareto Principle can be applied to so many things in life and nutrition is no different. You may know this principle as the 80-20 Rule. The short of it suggests 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Think about that for a second… reread it if you have to.

There are limitless nutritional variables (effects) that impact the body (causes). Each has a litany of myths and rules floating around. For simplicity’s sake, let’s jot down a list of 10 variables.

Calorie Consumption Nutrient Profile Supplements Carb Cycling Meal Frequency Vegetarian vs. Carnivore Processed vs. Unprocessed (clean vs. unclean) Organic vs. Conventional Nutrient Timing Ketogenic vs. Non-ketogenic

Per the Pareto Principle, we can wager that 80% of one’s goal attainment will stem from 20% of the variables at our disposal. Here’s a hint – two of the primary drivers are on the list and they’re at the top. How many calories are you consuming relative to how many you need and what’s the mix of nutrients you’re consuming that are providing said calories? Yet people sweat the other things on the list at the expense of the first two.

If you’re a bodybuilder who’s a couple of months out from stepping on stage 98.3% naked so that your physique can be judged, things are slightly different. You’re not interested in deriving only 80% of the effects. You need 100%. Bodybuilding is based on subjective perfection. They need to go beyond the basics in order to win. While the basics still apply to these folks, they also need to bury themselves in the nuances.

Here’s the thing though – bodybuilders in general have spent years getting their bodies to a point where the only thing left to do is eek out the final bits of progress that are within their genetic (and drug’s) limits. They need to focus on the entire aforementioned list plus some.

However, if 80% of progress comes from 20% of what we’re doing, by default, the remaining 20% of progress requires a ton of effort and time. The return on investment is much higher for the first 20% opposed to the last 80% of effort. Which is why, to the outsider, bodybuilding seems so extreme. The sport dominates their lives.

Here’s a mental exercise for you. What happens when you’re not a bodybuilder and you’re spending your time focusing on the 80% of effort that drives 20% of progress before you’ve hammered down the 20% of effort that drives 80% of progress? I’ll help you out – excruciatingly slow progress, plateaus, frustration, desperation, anxiety, and everything else you hear the neurotic dieter complaining about.

It’s akin to building your dream home. Would it be logical to start out buying the paint and wallpaper before setting the foundation and building the walls? This explains why the list of rules I’m presenting is extremely basic. Drastic times call for drastic measures. I figure if I go drastically simple it might make people wake up and see the light.

Stop every once and a while and ask, “What’s the least amount of effort that makes the greatest difference?” Once you have those answers, do some accounting of the things you’re spending the most time and energy on.

Without further ado…

Instead of eating when you’re hungry, eat to prevent hunger. This has to do with how often and what you eat. The “what” will be discussed in the remaining rules as they’re all meant to promote satiety and cover your body’s basic needs. The “how often” really depends on you, how much you’re eating, and your individual hunger patterns. I’ve personally found that most of my clients feel more satisfied eating frequent meals each day. This isn’t a necessity though as some people feel better eating lower meal frequencies. Check out intermittent fasting if you haven’t heard about it. Nobody’s going to spoon feed you, so experiment to find what’s best for you. Once you know your hunger patterns, build a meal plan that suits them. Related to #1, go into each week with a plan of attack. Shop with grocery lists and prep your foods in advance for the entire week. The goal is to reduce how much thought needs to go into meal preparation throughout the week. Failing to plan is planning to fail given how many high calorie foods and events bombard us in our culture. Stick to whole natural foods for the majority of your diet – majority being the operative word. Don’t be so rigid that one bite of cake causes so much guilt it turns into an entire cake. No food on its own merit is “good” or “bad.” Focus on calorie-density above all else. It’s well understood by now that some foods, by volume, contain much higher calories than others. A coffee roll from Dunkin Donuts has 400 calories and an equivalent volume of chicken and broccoli will most likely have less than 150 calories. It just so happens that whole natural foods tend to be the most calorie-sparse while the processed (high sugar and high fat) foods tend to be the most calorie-dense, which is why rule #3 exists, among other reasons. Eat protein (preferably from lean sources) at every meal. Good sources of protein include (but aren’t limited to) chicken breast, turkey breast, pork tenderloin, lean ground beef, lean cuts of steak such as top round, venison, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and protein powder. Of course if you miss a meal, your muscles aren’t going to fall off. It’s the net amount of protein consumed at the end of the day that matters most. It’s still a good idea to fit some protein in at each meal if you can though. Consume 2-4 servings of fruit per day. If you tend to get a sweet tooth between meals, try fruit first. Often times this will calm the craving, as well as satiate you. Consume 4-6 servings of fibrous vegetables per day. They’ll provide loads of nutrition and satiety without a massive caloric punch. Eat them cold. Or steam them with olive oil, garlic, and a dash of salt and pepper. Or eat salads and be mindful of using too much calorically dense salad items like high calorie dressings, mounds of croutons, and mountains of cheese. Or mix veggies in with your other foods – meat and vegetable kabobs come to mind as well as chicken stir fry made with vegetables of your choosing. Regardless, find ways of fitting them in! Approximately ¼ of your nutrition should come from fats. Optimally it’s balanced between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Most people will obtain adequate saturated fat from the meat they consume. Examples of good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, almond butter, avocados, olives, natural peanut butter, and nuts. Examples of good sources of polyunsaturated fats include flax and more notably high-fat fish such as salmon, tuna and trout. I highly recommend fish oil supplementation, as well. Carbohydrates aren’t evil. Yes, they’re the redheaded stepchild of the decade, but they aren’t going to make you gain weight in the absence of a calorie surplus. So don’t be irrationally scared of them if you’ve your calorie intake under wraps. I would prioritize protein and essential fats over them and I’d also suggest letting fruits and veggies comprise the majority of your carb intake. But don’t be afraid of whole wheat breads and pastas, rice, yams and potatoes, etc. Stay hydrated. How much you need to hydrate depends on numerous factors including sweat rates, environments, and food types consumed. Short of certain foods, diseases, and medications causing various effects, your pee shouldn’t be neon yellow/amber. The better hydrated you are, the clearer your pee will be. Use this as a metric for determining whether you need to drink more. Drinking gallons of water per day isn’t going to miraculously kick your metabolism into high gear though, which is something I often hear on the message boards. So don’t go overboard (yes, you can drink too much water).

And that’s it. No fancy pants guidelines. No mystical food combinations or timings. Most importantly, these rules aren’t rigid. If you break them, there’s no reason to panic and there’s certainly no reason to feel guilty. Just as the Pareto Principle dictates what you should spend the vast majority of your time focused on, it also explains that you don’t need perfection in order to succeed. Find balance in your life as well as in your approach. Erase perfection from your mindset because it doesn’t exist and trying to attain it is like taking a sledgehammer to your shin while running a race.

Building a better body will always be a process of learning and applying as you go. While drafting up a complete list of Dos and Don’ts that will carry you to your goals sounds ideal, it’s not realistic. The best bet is to apply the very basic units of proper nutrition. Focus on consistency on this level first. Once that’s down pat, you can start tweaking the nuances and tailoring your diet to your body and your needs. I’ll be the first to admit that some strategies work better for some folks than others.

Build a foundation that can stand the test of time.

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