Often when we think about getting healthier, the first thing we jump to is fixing our diet. Usually people think this means a complete overhaul.
You cut out sugar, dairy, saturated fat, carbs, meat and before you know it there is nothing left for you to eat, you still feel lousy, you still don’t lose any weight and before you know it you are having a ‘fuck dieting’ party with Ben, Jerry, and Papa John.
Before we get into the actual strategies of how you can fix your diet, here is my PSA: You do not need to go HAM on cutting things out and eating 1000 calories a day. This is unsustainable and will only result in more frustration. Take baby steps, be kind to yourself, and be patient.
STRATEGY 1: FIX YOUR NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES
The issue with overhauling and cutting out everything ‘bad’ is that it doesn’t tackle the real issue. When you eat shit, you feel shit. You feel shit because you aren’t getting enough vitamins and minerals (micronutrients). Your body needs adequate amounts of micronutrients to run like the well oiled machine it is.
Now, you might be wondering how common nutrient deficiencies actually are.
A study (1) from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) looked at the diets of 20 different athletes. All 20 had between 3 and 15 nutrient deficiencies based on the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) from food alone. The top nutrient deficiencies included iodine, Vitamin D, Zinc, and Vitamin E.
Another study (2) also published through the JISSN looked at popular or ‘fad’ diets such as the Atkins diet and South Beach diet. This study concluded that by following a popular diet plan with food alone (no supplementation), you are highly likely to become micronutrient deficient.
It’s also important to note that being micronutrient deficient not only can make you feel crap but can put you at higher risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, and obesity.
This is why you can cut carbs, go vegan, eat clean, count calories and still feel like shit. You aren’t solving your micronutrient problem and by cutting out food groups, you are likely making the problem worse.
So what can you do to fix this?
The first thing is to identify your nutritional hiccups. This won’t be as complicated as you think.
Whenever I first start working with someone there are some common issues that I see:
Insufficient water intake
Not eating enough fruits and vegetables (leading to micronutrient deficiency)
Not getting enough protein (especially you ladies)
Insufficient essential fatty acids (those omega-3s you hear people talk about)
Looking at this list, you can probably identify one of these as something major you are lacking in.
Make it simple, pick the one thing you know you are sucking at the most and fix it. If you know you go days without fruit, start having one piece of fruit a day. By making these subtle changes, you will start to feel better and have more energy.
STRATEGY 2: FIX YOUR PORTION SIZE
When it comes to getting your diet back in check, calorie intake matters. You can still overeat on healthy and nutrient dense food (although it’s a lot more difficult).
To start off, you don’t have to jump straight into using a fancy app like My Fitness Pal to control calorie intake. Although using an app like this can be helpful for specific goals (like getting extremely lean) it is not necessary if you’ve been off the train for a while. In fact, sometimes the app can cause more stress than is needed.
Instead, you can use your own hand as a guide for portion control:
1-2 palms of protein at each meal
1-2 fists of veggies at each meal
1-2 handfuls of carbs
1-2 thumbs of fat sources (e.g. avocado, nuts, nut butters, etc.)
Keep in mind, just like anything, use this as a baseline. You never know how your body will respond. If you find weight keeps creeping up, have a half handful less of carbs. Alternatively, if you find weight is dropping rapidly, add an extra thumb of fats or half a handful of carbs.
Be flexible, and listen to your body.
STRATEGY 3: FINE TUNE EVERYTHING
Let’s say that you’ve done numbers 1 and 2 and now you’re ready to start diving a little deeper. These strategies might be especially helpful if you have specific performance or body composition goals.
Play with your macros.
By macronutrients, I’m referring to protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Everyone responds differently to different macronutrient splits. Now the general rule of thumb for protein is 2.2g/kg of lean mass but carbs and fats can differ.
Some people feel better and their body composition improves on high amounts of carbs. Others need lower to moderate carbs and more fat to see similar results. The only way to know for sure is to try different methods and see what works best for you.
You can still do this without tracking calories and macros in an app. Just use your hand as a guide to adjust the amount of carbs and fats you’re having at each meal.
Try calorie cycling.
This is a fancy way of saying eating more on the days you train and less on the days you don’t train. Usually this comes in the form of altering carbohydrates while protein and fat remains consistent.
The philosophy behind doing this is simple. On the days that you don’t lift weights, your energy requirements aren’t as high so you eat a bit less carbs.
To try it out, follow your baseline diet on non training days and then add in ½ serving of carbs on your training days.
A note of caution: Make sure that you have strategies 1 and 2 working smoothly and consistently before playing with the finer details. The little things won’t matter if your regular portion sizes aren’t under control and you aren’t eating enough nutrient dense food.
Play with workout nutrition.
In the grand scheme of things, this is at the bottom of the nutritional priority list. BUT, if you are doing everything else and you want to get more nitty gritty, you can give this a try.
Try spacing the majority of your carbs around your training. For example, if you have one handful of carbs at each meal and you have 4 meals a day, try having 1.5 handfuls of carbs in your pre workout and post workout meal and having ½ handful of carbs at the remaining meals.
This may help with performance and recovery and making sure carbs are getting utilized in the best way possible.
Maybe you’ve fallen off track with nutrition (totally ok) but now you’re ready to get back on your shit and start kicking ass again. Here’s what you can do:
Resolve any nutrient deficiencies you might have.
Get portion sizes under control.
Track your progress and make adjustments when needed.
Do these things CONSISTENTLY for a long period of time first. By long I mean 3-6 months not a couple of weeks.
Add some fine-tuning strategies.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete newbie or someone who has been in the game for awhile and just needs a kick to get back on track. Start tackling each thing one at a time. Please, for all that is good, DO NOT try and do this all at once. Tick one thing off the list before moving onto the next and I can guarantee you will be looking and feeling better in no time.