Lots of diets can get you lean, but how do you keep body fat in check all year long without being on a diet? We ask our experts about their everyday strategies.
What nutrition tricks or unwritten rules do you have to help you stay lean even if you're not on a strict diet?
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Here are three nutritional habits I've used to help stay lean:
- Prepare the workweek's meals on Sunday. Simply planning ahead helps you eat healthier, more wholesome food. And knowing I'll be eating appropriately during the workday gives me the license to loosen up a bit on the weekend.
- Sprout and roast my own almonds. Sprout them by soaking raw almonds overnight in water. Roast them by lightly coating a baking sheet with coconut oil, evenly distributing the almonds and adding sea salt. Bake at 275 degrees for a few hours.
Some studies suggest people who consume nuts maintain a more favorable body composition regardless of the additional calories. I believe it has something to do with the fiber, healthy fat, and ability to curb hunger and manage blood sugar.
- A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar at night before bed contributes to better blood glucose control. Daily use of Indigo-3G® assists similarly and remains a staple of mine. Control your carbs, and if you go a little overboard use apple cider vinegar and Indigo-3G to mitigate the impact. – Mark Dugdale
Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor
The unwritten rules I've developed no longer take conscious effort, so I don't think of them as rules anymore, just habits, strategies, and preferences. Here are three:
1 – You've heard the phrase, "pick your battles."
It means save your fight for things that REALLY matter. I feel the same about indulgences. Save your calories and carbs for things that'll mean more to you, instead of eating junk habitually.
My husband and I put this into practice even more when eating out. We avoid stuff that's been battered and fried, we never order desserts, and we never have bread brought to our table. Why? Because those are things we don't care about. To us, the calories aren't worth the pleasure.
But we do enjoy fatty condiments like sour cream or guacamole, and the occasional alcoholic drink. And that brings me to another thing...
2 – If I'm going to have sugar at all, it better give me a buzz.
I don't recommend this strategy for most people, especially those who drink a lot or are prone to alcoholism. But I consume mixed drinks so infrequently that this isn't a problem for me. It doesn't take much for me to start feeling good. Sure, wine is always going to be a "healthier" choice than the sugary stuff, so that's normally what I opt for and recommend. But an authentic margarita made by a good friend is unbeatable.
3 – I use "if, then" statements regularly.
It helps me to think ahead and anticipate how everything I do now will affect my results later on. You'd use this strategy to consider the unintended consequences certain behaviors might cause.
Here's how it works: Before you do anything, think, "If I do this, then it'll cause that."
For example, snacking after dinner disrupts my sleep because I have super slow digestion. So whenever I'm tempted to eat at night, I think, "If I eat that stuff, then I'll toss and turn in bed."
Try envisioning the consequences. I actually picture myself tossing and turning, then compare that vision to the effects I'd get if I hadn't snacked after dinner – deeper sleep and a much smaller waistline. I remember how good it feels to lay in bed and NOT feel like a cow.
This strategy can work for habits you want to adopt too. So let's use the same example. A good way to prevent yourself from eating after dinner is by frontloading your caloric intake. So you could tell yourself, "If I eat a bigger breakfast and lunch, then there will be less temptation to eat after dinner."
You can use this with any habit you want to change, but you have to be honest with yourself. "If I eat cake every day, then I'll be flawless forever" is a statement full of lies, and enabling yourself this way won't improve your self-discipline. So draw upon your previous experiences and use them to predict what will occur. – Dani Shugart
Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO
I was fat back in college. Besides the usual culprits – eating crap and not moving around much – I got porky by skipping breakfast and overcompensating at night.
Breakfast was coffee, lunch was whatever I could get for three dollars at Taco Bell, and dinner was everything I could shovel in that wouldn't fight back.
Nothing disrupts your metabolism and dietary behaviors more efficiently than that eating pattern. So my personal rules today are: eat breakfast and avoid eating about three hours before bed. And these two things go together.
Study after study backs up eating breakfast for fat loss and maintaining leanness. Breakfast has an autoregulatory effect. It helps you regulate your appetite hormones throughout the day. Eat a healthy breakfast, or try to just frontload your daily calories, and you're also much less likely to overeat at night.
I train in the morning, so a typical day might start like this:
- 5:30 AM: Finibar
- 7:30 AM: Workout nutrition (Plazma™)
- 8:45 AM: Oatmeal, protein powder, fruit or berries
That's over 1300 calories by 9 o'clock in the morning. That's frontloading.
I'll have lunch (meat and veggies) and a couple of snacks (raw almonds) then eat a healthy dinner. Because I start the day with a good number of calories, I've normalized my appetite, so skipping the nighttime snacks and not eating three hours before falling asleep is easier.
"Easier" but not always easy, because our bad habits can override what our physiology is telling us. So you have to learn the difference between cravings and real hunger.
When I first adopted the "no food before bed" rule, I had to sit there and think about how satiated I was from dinner. I'd get the urge to snack before bed even though my stomach was still digesting dinner. That was habit, not hunger. But the more successful nights I had, the easier it became. Autoregulation again.
And before you say, "But I don't even want breakfast!" remember this is a sign that your hormones – primarily ghrelin and leptin and their effects on the brain chemicals NPY, AGRP, and POMC – are dysfunctional. But they can be repaired.
Start with the "no food three hours before bed" guideline and the rest will come naturally. You'll wake up ready to eat, like you're supposed to.
And sure, you can experiment with things like intermittent fasting, keto, or whatever. There's a time and place for stricter/wackier diets, but frontloading calories and not eating before bed should be your default pattern for keeping the chub off for the long term.
That's simply how your body and its elegant array of hormones and chemicals was designed to work. – Chris Shugart
Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Here are two protocols I use:
The Meat and Nut Breakfast
Breakfast is the most important meal and what you eat sets up your entire neurotransmitter production for the day. The meat and nuts breakfast raises both dopamine and acetyl-choline, the two most important neurotransmitters for focus and drive.
The meat allows for a slow and steady rise in blood sugar. The nuts provide a great source of smart fats that allow blood sugar to remain stable for an extended period of time.
If you're allergic to nuts then an alternative would be a portion of low glycemic/ low fructose fruits, preferably organic:
The Pre-Dinner Protocol
This will help with body composition by improving insulin sensitivity. Being more insulin sensitive helps to build more muscle and lose body fat. Thirty minutes before my main meal of the day, I take Indigo-3G®, fish oil and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. – Michael Warren
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
To reduce food intake without really thinking about it, and to facilitate fat loss, here are three strategies I've talked about before:
1 – Do something physical for 7-15 minutes before you eat.
This will both blunt hunger and make you think twice about adding a non-planned meal.
2 – Drink a protein shake before meals.
Ideally, use a protein powder that makes a thick shake like Metabolic Drive® Protein 10-15 minutes before your main meals. This will decrease hunger and make you satiated more easily, plus it gives you some extra muscle-building protein. Protein is extremely hard to convert to fat, so don't worry about that.
3 – Don't eat carbs on the days you don't train.
This pretty much ensures that you'll have a caloric deficit on these days... unless you're stupid enough to compensate by eating a whole brick of butter! Skipping carbs on non-training days will allow you to lose fat without thinking too much about it, even if you eat more on the training days.
Do I have other tricks? Of course! I'm the world's top binge eater! It's funny because people look at me and they assume I always eat perfectly, that I'm like a robot eating only for function not pleasure. Quite the contrary, my friends.
I'm the guy who once gained 27 pounds in six hours (measured for posterity), an event that led me to learn the pain of childbirth the next morning. I'd also routinely wake up in the middle of the night and eat all the good stuff in the house. Heck, a lot of times my wife would wake up without anything to eat for breakfast because I ate it all at night!
So I have a few tricks. Not all of them will be practical for everybody, but I'm telling you what works for me:
4 – The most obvious one: don't buy crap.
If there's no junk food in the house I'm a lot less likely to eat it. Simple, yet few people do it. They might buy a pack of cookies thinking, "I'm only gonna have one." Newsflash: If the cookies are in your house, they will get eaten!
5 – Only buy your groceries one day at a time.
I go to the grocery store every day at 9 AM and only buy my food for the next day. That way I make sure I can't eat more than planned.
Now, going to the grocery store at 9 AM might not be practical for you, but you can go after work (or even better, after your evening meal). The key principle is going to the store often to avoid having a lot of food available at your house. When I was preparing for a bodybuilding contest I even went to the store twice per day, buying half a day's worth of food each time. That's a bit extreme and you don't need to do that, but you get the idea.
6 – Don't do anything else when you eat.
This is my biggest nemesis, so when I diet down I make sure never to do it. See, when you read, watch TV, or look at social media while eating, your brain gets two pleasure signals. You get twice the dopamine release as you would from only the meal.
Your brain doesn't dissociate the two sources of pleasure, and you start to associate food with a greater pleasure which reinforces your desire to have more of it. Plus, if you're doing something when eating you're not paying attention to satiety signals and you'll eat more.
7 – It's better to eat with someone.
First, you're less likely to overeat when another person is present, especially if you're someone who needs approval from others or hates to look bad in front of other people. I'm always a lot more conservative with my eating when I'm around people. Of course this doesn't apply if you're with a competitive friend and challenging one another to an eating contest.
Another benefit of eating with someone is what I call the "French phenomenon." Despite a richer diet, the French are a lot leaner on average than North Americans. Why? Because the French do a lot of talking during meals!
Each meal is a social event. This greatly slows down the pace and by extension, food intake. Yes, you get an enhanced pleasure response, but you reduce food intake and take your time, which allows your satiety mechanisms to kick in. Eating slowly will get you satiated without eating as much.
8 – Eat cheat meals in front of your significant other.
When I was a binge eater I'd always cheat when I was alone. Nobody around, no shame. And I'd just go crazy. I once asked my wife to wait outside the house while I was binging. Sometimes I'd ask her to go to her parents. That's how bad I was! Now, when I have a cheat meal I always do it when she's around. I don't want her to think I'm a pig.
9 – If you're someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to eat, get dogs!
One thing that really helped me stop eating at night was getting three pugs. When I go to the kitchen they follow me because they know they're gonna get some food. So if I wake up and go to the kitchen they'll jump out of the bed, step on my wife, wake her up, and get her pissed off. So I stopped going to the kitchen at night. Okay, that might not be practical for everybody...
10 – Go spend a week at an all-inclusive resort.
Seriously. These resorts have great buffets, but in the middle of the night you can't find any food. And there are no supermarkets on the resort so you can't store food in the room. You'll be spending seven days without eating at night. This will program you to stop that habit. But the buffet? Yeah, that can be an issue. But if you're in good shape then you probably don't like to look like a bloated whale on the beach, so you probably won't overindulge.
Some of these tricks might see weird to you. And no, I didn't come up with them to be funny. I actually did all these things. And today, what I considered to be an eating disorder (binging) is fixed. I rarely overeat, I don't eat crap, and I don't feel deprived. You need to find a strategy that works for you.
There are a lot of cool tricks here, but maybe only one will work for you. But it might be the difference between being lean or fat, and between feeling deprived or being happy. – Christian Thibaudeau
Akash Vaghela – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
Have protein first with every meal. It sounds so simple, but it's still overlooked by most people. Whether you eat three, four, five, or six times a day, include a source of protein with each meal. There are two main reasons:
What fills you up more, a sandwich or a steak? Research seems to indicate a strong protein effect on the hormone peptide YY, which is released in the ileum and colon in response to feeding and is involved in inducing satiation. That's partly why it's so easy to eat endless bowls of cereal, but after 200g of chicken you'll likely have had enough.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
The caloric cost of digesting and processing protein is much higher compared to fats and carbs. When you consume protein, 20-30% of the calories consumed are expended during processing. There's a high cost associated with unfolding proteins and digesting them, and it outshines carbs (5-6%) and fats (2-3%).
If you want to stay lean and in shape year around, start every meal with protein and you'll feel more satiated, burn more calories, and eat less overall. – Akash Vaghela
Kurt Weber – Strength and Conditioning Coach
Although recent research has disproven a lot of the "broscience" in regards to fasted cardio and other topics, the "why" of something working isn't just limited to the direct effects; sometimes the indirect effects or placebo effects can be just as effective, if not more so, at promoting positive habits.
Fasted cardio for example tends to improve adherence. If you can't eat until you work out, then your workouts become more frequent and more consistent. No, it may not work by scientific standards... but it works through practical application.
So with that in mind here are a couple of my personal "rules" to stay on track:
- I increase the size of each meal as the day goes on. Big meals make you sleepy and that's not ideal for cognitive performance at work. Making positive food choices are highly unlikely when you're tired and under a blood sugar crash.
- I find ways to sneak protein/veggies/healthy fats into as many meals as possible. I add protein powder to plain Greek yogurt, veggies to eggs, and avocado or coconut oil to carbs like rice, black beans, or potatoes. They're mostly tasteless and make a huge cumulative difference.
- I drink sparkling water throughout the day. Not only does it keep you hydrated, it also reduces hunger and sugar cravings.
- I brush my teeth and use mouthwash after each meal, especially right after dinner. Many diets are failed because of snacking between meals or in the last two hours before sleep. It's simply less likely to happen with a fresh mouth! – Kurt Weber
Mike T. Nelson, PhD – Metabolism and Fitness Expert
Let's look at the other side of the coin: exercise.
When you look at the research, exercise is NOT the main source of calories burned for most people. After resting metabolic rate (which is around 50%), it's actually NEAT or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is simply just how much you move that's not exercise: walking, fidgeting, etc.
A big rule that has helped me and my clients is simple: Take the stairs whenever possible. You see this big time in airports. Despite most people sitting in their car to get there and sitting for 2-8 hours on a plane, a vast majority of the large mammals roaming around the airport take the escalator, even though the stairs are right next to it. Take the stairs whenever possible. – Mike T. Nelson, PhD
- Kahn EB, Ramsey LT, Brownson RC, Heath GW, Howze EH, Powell KE, Stone EJ, Rajab MW, Corso P.The effectiveness of interventions to increase physical activity. A systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2002 May;22(4 Suppl):73-107.