Getting lean is simple, just not easy. Here are some uncomplicated rules to follow about food, cheat meals, and more.
Science can make nutrition complicated. Measure the glycemic index of this, the glycemic load of that. How much omega-6's in this? What about omega-3's?
While a deeper level of nutrition knowledge can certainly be useful, what we often get through the media are little bits of information that's never paired with an overall philosophy.
It becomes especially hard when faced with nutritional science that seems to contradict itself. Eggs are a great source of protein and healthy fats. No, eggs have too much cholesterol and "bad" saturated fat. What do we do?
Here's my philosophy: I call it the Simple Diet, because it's simple to understand and the foods you're eating will be in their simple, or basic, form.
This diet is particularly useful when you want to lean up a bit but still live a relatively normal lifestyle. If you hope to get unbelievably cut or prep for a bodybuilding show, this likely isn't for you, but if you found that your holiday bingeing has extended into spring training, then this might be your answer.
This diet assumes you're working out reasonably hard at least several days a week. If you're not doing that, start. If you don't plan on doing that, you're on the wrong website.
Builders & Energy Providers
I think of food in terms of two categories: builders and energy providers. That's how I teach the nutrition basics to my kids, who are all five and under. It's simple, and it works. You can also add a third category: stuff that keeps you healthy.
This paradigm matches nicely with the primary functions of nutrients, which are to provide energy, build and repair tissue, and regulate metabolism.
The meathead's favorite food group. The stuff that does this job is protein and fat. On this diet, you can eat as much natural, unprocessed protein and fat as you want.
Here are some examples:
- Red meat
- Eggs (whites or whole)
- Chicken (with/without the skin)
- Turkey (with/without the skin)
- Fish (with/without the skin)
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
You'll notice that I'm pushing unprocessed foods. Slicing turkey meat from an actual turkey breast is better than opening a package of pressed mechanically separated turkey parts. You already know this, because that turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving tastes a hell of a lot better than that five-dollar foot long from Subway, it's just less convenient. Get over it.
I'm a big fish fan. One of the rules of this diet is that you have to eat fish at least twice a week, and the more the merrier. However, fish from a can doesn't count – it's not off-limits, but it doesn't count toward your twice-a-week total. Non-farmed fish is ideal, but work with what you have access to.
I'm not as excited about pork. Fish and lean red meat (and wild game if you have access to it) is number one. Pigs aren't as good, in my opinion. Sneaking in some lean pork tenderloin is permitted, but no bacon or hot dogs. They're processed junk.
Avoid things like mayonnaise, peanut butter, and sour cream. Mayo is too processed and peanut butter and sour cream, while natural, are better for weight gain, and this is a weight loss program. If you find yourself losing weight too fast and aren't trying to get ultra lean, you can add those foods back in.
This is where carbs fall. This is not a low-carb diet – those diets can work but can be a pain to follow, not to mention they cause intense workouts to suck. This diet will have carbs, but they'll be of the healthy sort.
Here's what you can eat:
- Potatoes (any version in its natural state)
- Sweet potatoes (ideal)
- Rice (any version)
- Oatmeal (any version but steel cut preferred)
- Any fruit
- Any veggie
Note: Wraps and the like may be used sparingly (once or twice a week)
You may have unlimited amounts of any of the foods from either of the above categories. Yes, unlimited. Most people don't crave natural foods, and there are far fewer reports of binging on chicken and rice than beer and wings. Natural foods are also enormously satisfying and contain more fiber, so they fill you up quicker.
Natural foods are also much harder to come by. You can get junk food at 2 AM just by hitting up the drive thru or vending machine. You're much less likely to have a post-bar binge-fest if it requires grilling up chicken and digging out the rice cooker.
Finally, natural foods tend to spoil, so you usually don't have unlimited quantities lying around, and they're expensive – so even if your head or stomach doesn't tell you to stop eating, your wallet will.
You still might find yourself a bit hungry or experiencing cravings while on this diet. That's expected, but it won't be cravings for these foods.
You will have veggies at every meal. Yes, every meal, including breakfast. You can have whatever veggies you want, but fresh or frozen is preferred over canned. Your veggies should be bright and colorful and actually have taste.
Peas, broccoli, shredded peppers, and mixed veggies are my personal favorites, but have whatever you want. This will help you feel full, give you some energy, and along with the good fats, help take care of the third category, keeping you healthy.
Avoid any processed carbs, junk food, desserts, sugar, soda, and fruit juice – all off limits. Pasta and bread are also on the avoid list.
Of course, you can eat that stuff if you must, just be aware that you're cheating if you do. There are also no diet drinks allowed – no Diet Snapple, Pepsi One, Coke Zero, etc. They're not natural things so they don't qualify (hey, it's my diet!).
Basic rule, if the food doesn't look pretty close to what came out of the ground, you can't have it.
- Nuts. While healthy, nuts tend to slow down the weight loss process. If you're losing weight too fast, or trying to gain a bit of muscle, then by all means include them. But for straight fat loss, go nut-free for a month and see what happens. You can then make a decision based on the results.
- Coffee. I'm not a coffee drinker, but if you're going to drink it in its relatively natural state (meaning your cup of joe doesn't resemble a 30-ounce milkshake with caramel drizzle), then it's likely okay. I also don't think a person should be addicted to anything, so if you go into caffeine withdrawal without coffee, it's time to get that under control.
- Milk. I like milk and tend to include it in my diets. Start off with 16 ounces or less of whole milk (preferably organic) per day and see how you respond. If you're losing weight too fast, start to add it back in, if not keep it out. The same holds true for most dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese.
- Alcohol. From a health and fitness point of view, wine is the best (although I don't drink it, much to my wife's chagrin). Try limiting wine to one or two times a week and see how you respond. I'd avoid beer or hard alcohol, although you can have them with your weekly cheat meal. My rule of addiction holds true here, too, so if it'd be hard for you to go a month without booze, then now's the time to stop and get it under control. One of my favorite quotes (from Epictetus) is, "No man is free who is not a master of himself."
- Supplements. While no diet "needs" supplements, a good peri-workout protocol would be one of the first things I'd put back into a diet, especially if you're going for that "pretty lean but still big and powerful" look. Check out Plazma™ – the feedback is astounding.
What I like about this diet is that you can follow it long term. I should point out that to me, a diet doesn't mean a plan you follow for a set time to accomplish a goal; it's simply a word to describe one's eating.
But denying yourself sucks, and we only have so much will power, so I want you to cheat on this plan. For one meal, once a week, every week, you can eat whatever you want, as much as you want. No limits.
Ideally, eat reasonably healthy for that meal; go out to a restaurant and order the fish and rice, but add that appetizer or dessert that you've been craving. In other words, it's better to do "little cheats" instead of a big cheat.
So if you're craving food not on the plan, eat a healthier choice like spaghetti with meat sauce instead of three Big Macs. Think of food as a continuum; just because you're cheating doesn't mean you have to go completely to the other side.
The leaner you are, the closer to where you want to be physique-wise, the more you can cheat. The heavier you are, the further away from your goals, the less you can cheat. You can rationalize this by saying heavier folks have already been cheating so now it's time to pay up and be strict, while leaner people have earned a bit of freedom with their diet and can enjoy themselves accordingly.
What to eat
- Unlimited natural, unprocessed meat (chicken, turkey, red meat, wild game)
- Unlimited animal skin
- Unlimited natural fat
- Fish (not from a can) twice per week minimum
- Veggies with every meal, no exceptions
- Unlimited fruit
- Unlimited potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and oatmeal
- If you follow the above rules, one meal per week eat whatever you want, as much as you want.
Note: Choose organic and/or high quality versions of the above foods whenever possible or as budgetary restrictions allow.
A typical 200-pound male following this plan should lose 1-2 pounds a week of mainly fat. Use the stomach/waistline as a progress guide – over time it should get smaller and noticeably leaner.
Once you've reached your goal you may modify the program a bit. You might include another cheat meal, or simply try to eat another meal on top of what you're normally consuming to prevent further weight loss. Adding in additional pre or post workout nutrients would be the best place to start. By this point you should have learned how your body responds to different foods and can make changes appropriately.
What's great about this diet – apart from its efficacy – is that you can follow it for a long time, it works pretty well with "real life," and it still supplies enough energy to get through your T Nation approved workouts.
But it isn't complicated – when it comes to nutrition, simpler is often better.