Your body needs three things to be healthy: exercise, sleep, and food.
There’s a lot of dogma out there about which diet is the absolute best. Don’t buy it. What you need to eat is based on two things: your biology and your goals.
This article will show you how to choose what to eat based on your goals, and will remove the confusion that surrounds this often divisive topic. Here’s what you can expect from this article:
- A comparison of the most popular diets out there, and their pros and cons.
- Specific recommendations for the most common nutrition goals.
- The #1 tool that will help you make progress.
- Bonus points to get you the best results possible.
- A nutrition cheat sheet you can hang on your fridge for easy reference.
Paleo and Vegan and Ketogenic – Oh My!
What and how to eat is a confusing and divisive topic. Every fitness magazine or blog tells you to do something different, and every time a new fad diet gets recommended by Oprah, people go crazy.
Many of these popular approaches to eating are well intentioned, and are being recommended by people for whom they’ve worked. And that’s great.
It’s when these recommendations turn into a dietary holy war that things get out of hand.
There are about 10,000 diets out there, but here’s a quick look at some of the most popular diets right now (at the time of this writing – I’m sure they’ll be different next week), and why each one might work really well for some people and very badly for others.
Is any one of these diets better than another? Probably not. As you’ll see below, it all depends on your goals and needs.
The No-Dogma Guide to Nutrition: Choosing the Right Approach for Your Goals
The first step in figuring out how you should be eating is to understand that every goal lends itself to different eating strategies, though the basic principles of building the right habits and setting yourself up for success remain the same.
Let’s look at some specific goals and how you can make the most sensible choices to meet those goals.
For each goal, I’ve included some specific tips for food journaling – what to track, what you should be focusing on, etc. I’ll go into food journaling a bit more below, but these tips will give you a good start.
1. Fat LossWhen it comes to losing weight, I hate to break it to you, but calories do matter (despite what some may say).
A basic principle of nutrition is that there must be a caloric deficit in order for weight loss to happen. That does not mean you should be starving yourself. It simply means you may need to cut down some on your food intake, but do it smartly and it won’t be a painful process.
Here are the biggest bang-for-your-buck strategies you can use to encourage weight loss, if that’s something you need:
- Reduce Empty Calories – If you drink soda, juice, or lots of pumpkin spice lattes, you’re probably taking in a lot more calories through a straw than you might think. Simply reducing how many calorically dense drinks you consume can have a huge impact on your daily caloric intake. Plus, real food (that you chew) is far more filling and nutrient dense.
- Measure for Two Weeks – The biggest hurdle for most people needing to lose weight is gaining awareness of what they’re eating. Most people don’t even realize they’re overeating at all. What I recommend is buying a cheap food scale on Amazon and spending just two weeks measuring your food so you can start being fully aware of your portion sizes. After a couple of weeks, you likely won’t need the scale anymore. You can just record general portion sizes in your food journal, but you’ll have a much better idea of how to eyeball measurements.
- Cut Calories Slowly – Don’t make drastic changes, even if you’ve been going overboard for a long time. Let’s say your maintenance calories for your bodyweight are 2000 calories, and after tracking your eating for a couple of weeks, you find you’re really taking in 2800 calories on average per day. Don’t cut your calories to 2000 in one shot. Instead, reduce by 250 calories per day per week. In other words, In week one, you’ll cut to 2550 per day, in week two, you’ll cut to 2300 per day, and in week three you’ll cut to 2050 per day. I’d recommend staying at your maintenance calories for a few weeks before cutting further for additional weight loss. If you’ve been eating in excess for a while, just coming down to your maintenance calories will yield good results. If you’ve been eating your maintenance calories for a while already, just follow the same gradual calorie cutting pattern if you want to lose weight.
In your food journal, you’ll want to be a bit more thorough with how you’re recording things since you’re looking to reduce fat.
Take a waist measurement (across the navel) once every two weeks, along with one additional measurement (can be scale weight or how your clothing fits). If your measurements are not moving in the right direction, look back at your journals and see if anything pops out at you to work on.
2. Strength and/or Muscle GainThe worst thing you can do for strength or muscle gain is to keep yourself in a caloric deficit. Especially if you’re trying to gain muscle size, you’ll need to give your body plenty of fuel.
Here are some key tips for eating for strength or muscle:
- Eat at Maintenance or Above – For strength, eating at maintenance is sufficient. For muscle gain, you’ll want to increase your carbohydrates so that you are eating 300-500 calories above maintenance daily. If you’re concerned about gaining fat, stick to the lower end of that range.
- Protein is Key – You need a lot of protein for both strength and muscle gain. The exact amount of protein varies from person to person, but if you keep it between .8 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, you’ll be fine. Just take your current bodyweight and multiply by .8 and by 1.2 – your protein intake per day should be somewhere in that range.
- Time Your Larger Meals With Your Training – It’s a good idea to eat your larger meals shortly following a heavy training session, and preferably, shortly before bed.
In your food journal, don’t worry as much about weighing and measuring things exactly, since you’re aiming for caloric intake of maintenance or above.
If your goal is strength, be sure to pay special attention to performance measurements (for instance, if your goal is to build up to 20 pull-ups and you’ve stalled, take a look at your food journal and see if you are eating enough).
For a hypertrophy goal, taking your waist measurement and scale weight once a week is a good way to see if you’re making progress (if your waist measurement is staying the same or decreasing, while scale weight goes up, you’re putting on muscle).
3. Endurance MaintenanceAs with a strength or hypertrophy goal, you want to keep yourself out of a caloric deficit if you’re looking to maintain (or increase) endurance.
Follow these key points for this goal:
- Eat at Maintenance or Above – Endurance requires energy, and energy = calories. Most people who are training for endurance (runners, cyclists, etc.) need as much fuel as they can get, so you probably don’t need to worry much about overeating.
- Add an Extra Serving of Starchy Carbs – On intense training days, you may want to add an extra serving of rice or grains, shortly before or after your workout.
Performance measures, as well as how you’re feeling, are going to be the most important things to pay attention to in your food journal, since your waist measurement doesn’t really say much about your endurance (though you can track it if you want to, obviously).
In whatever sport or activity you’re doing that requires endurance, just look at how well you are able to keep up with that activity. For instance, if you’re a runner, you may want to look at your run times; if you just want to be able to walk up the stairs at work without huffing and puffing, record how well you’re able to do that.
Also be sure to record how you’re feeling overall. If you’re feeling more fatigued and sore than usual, that’s important. Look back at your food journal and see if you need to be eating more, or if you need more starchy carbs right around your training sessions.
4. General Health (or a Diet Overhaul)This is probably the most common nutrition goal we hear. You’ve been eating poorly for a long time and you know you need to make a change, but you have no clue where to start.
The good news is you don’t have to change everything at once – in fact, you shouldn’t.
All the research on habits and change demonstrate that changing too much at once is not the path to lasting change. Instead, make one small change at a time and give it a chance to stick before taking on something else.
So, the answer to “where should I start” is really: anywhere that feels easiest right now. These are all good places to start:
- Replace Processed Foods with Real Foods – Food that comes from plants and animals are full of nutrients. Food that comes from a bag generally is not. Plus, real food fills you up a lot faster than a bag of chips ever well. If you can make as much of your diet as possible come from plants and animals, and as little as possible from processed sources, you’ll be in good shape.
- Meals are Better Than Snacks – Snacking is a great way to eat a lot of food without ever really being aware of what (or how much) you’re eating. Instead, eat most of your food in the form of meals, and when you sit down to a meal, eat the hell out of it. You should come away from a meal feeling full (but not stuffed to the gills) and satiated until your next big meal.
- Indulge Mindfully – There’s a big difference between indulging intentionally and eating impulsively. When you plan to indulge for a particular meal, you can be mindful of how you’ll eat the rest of the day and what specifically you want to indulge on, allowing you to fully enjoy that indulgence. When you eat impulsively, you’re not really enjoying that “indulgence” and you likely won’t feel very good about the experience afterward. Eat the ice cream and load it up with hot fudge and whipped cream – Just do so with intention 🙂
- Plan Ahead – No matter what eating plan you choose to follow, your best bet is to plan ahead as much as possible. Have the foods you want to be eating available in your home or office. Try not to purchase “trigger foods” that you’re working on decreasing. Spend an hour or two at the beginning of the week cooking and shopping so you’re all set for the week ahead.
- Do One Thing at a Time – Yes, I’ll say it again because this is the most important thing. Don’t take on six different lifestyle changes at once. If you’re just getting back to training after a long break, stick with that for a while before making other drastic lifestyle changes. If you’ve just switched to drinking water after years of only drinking soda, give yourself time to adjust to that before trying to up your protein intake. Small changes add up, and you’ll be much more successful if you do things in a slow and smart way.
In your food journal, make sure you’re recording, not just what you’re eating, but also what small change you’re working on right now. Remind yourself that you’re just working on that one small thing, and don’t worry about any other changes you need to make down the line.
Many people decide to make changes in their diet because their doctor said they should, or they’re just not feeling great on a day-to-day basis.
Whatever your motivation may be, choose two things you’re going to measure and track so you can see the progress you’re making (or see when something needs to change). For instance, if you’ve been feeling lethargic, assign a number to your current fatigue levels (say, 7 on scale from 1-10). Every week or two, record that number. It’s subjective, but it’s how you’re feeling, so it matters.
The #1 Tool That Will Help You Stay On Track With Your Eating PlanRegardless of your goal, the #1 thing that will keep you on track is this: food journaling.
When you start keeping track of what you’re eating, you’ll be far more aware of the choices you are making on a daily basis.
You already know that eating lots of fruits and veggies and protein is a whole lot better for you than scarfing pizza every night. But you’re here, reading this article, which means you want to make a change, and lifestyle changes of any kind are all about building the right habits.
Food journaling is an effective way of taking the habit you want to build and making it concrete, something you can look at when things aren’t going the way you’d like them to.
There are numerous ways to keep a food journal. Some prefer a pen and paper journal, some like keeping their logs in an Excel spreadsheet, and many others (myself included) rely on a mobile app, like MyFitnessPal (this one’s my favorite, but there are dozens available).
The important thing is to find a tool that you feel comfortable using, and that’s convenient for you.
What to Track in Your Food Journal
In the previous section, I gave you detailed examples on how to apply food journaling to your specific goal, but here are some general guidelines that apply to any goal:
- Start with a food plan in mind. This could be anything that is going to help further your goals (as we discussed in the previous section).
- Take at least two baseline measurements that you can refer back to. A measurement could be something like scale weight or waist size, but it could also be fatigue levels or training performance (the latter will obviously be more subjective, so try to assign a number to your starting point that you can refer back to – i.e. “Today my fatigue level is a 7 on a scale from 1-10”). Make sure to record these measurements in your journal.
- Each day, record what you’re eating or drinking (if you’re drinking anything with calories). It’s a good idea, at least for the first couple of weeks of this, to also record meal timing and food measurements (if you’re trying to lose weight, these measurements might need to be more specific, but for most other goals, you should just have a general idea of what you’re eating – no need to weigh things on a scale), as well as workout timing and how you feel after eating your meals.
- Retest your baseline measurements once every two or three weeks to make sure you’re on track toward your goals.
As for when to journal, you have two options: pre-journaling (you can decide the day before or morning of what you’ll be eating for that day) or post-journaling (you record as you go). Choose one and see if you’re able to stick with it. If not, try the other approach.
For most people, following the above recommendations is plenty to get you seeing the results you want. But here are some additional things you might be wondering about, since they’re talked about so often.
We get a lot of questions about supplements (some of which are just confused by the name of our daily movement course, Vitamin), and while we’re not experts, we did want to address this topic briefly.
It is an important question, though, because everywhere you look people recommend “miracle” supplements that everyone should be taking. In reality, yes, most people should be taking supplements, but really, you probably don’t need more than the basics.
- Most people should be taking a high quality multivitamin/multi-mineral supplement.
- If you have trouble taking in enough vegetables, a greens supplement like Greens+ is a good option.
- Most women should probably be taking iron, while most men should probably be taking zinc. These are easy and relatively cheap to test if you want to check your levels first.
- Unless you live in the tropics, you should take vitamin D (again, this is very cheap to test if you want to know what your levels are before starting a D supplement).
- Unless you eat a lot of fish, you should take fish oil (focus on DHA content when choosing a fish oil supplement).
You do get what you pay for when it comes to supplements, so err on the side of higher quality if you can.
For more information on all of these supplements, and any others you’re considering, Examine.com is a spectacular resource for looking up information about supplements and how they may help you. Their reference guide offers assistance if you have a “health goal” but their site is also a great place to search for information if you have a particular supplement in mind.
Remember, the best source of nutrients is quality food. If you get enough high quality protein and vegetables, these vitamins should be all you need to supplement with, unless you have a specific deficit.
If you’re experiencing physical symptoms such as fatigue or digestive issues, an elimination diet can be a good way to figure out what might be causing these issues. Of course, go get checked out by your doctor first to make sure there’s nothing more serious going on.
There are many ways to do an elimination diet but most of them share this basic structure:
- Cut out the foods that most commonly cause reactions in people (including, but not limited to: soy, dairy, wheat, eggs, etc.) for a period of time (anywhere from 7 to 21 days).
- Reintroduce one food at a time after the elimination period, tracking your symptoms for a couple of days following the reintroduction. If your symptoms worsen with the reintroduction, that food is likely causing negative symptoms.
For more detailed information on how to implement an elimination diet, see this guide from Precision Nutrition.
This is a “next level” road you can go down if you have good reason to do so, but in most cases, it’s really not necessary.
It’s become popular for every “fitness guru” out there to say you need to get rigorous testing done before deciding on an eating plan, but in most cases, it’s just expensive and unnecessary.
If you’re food journaling and paying attention to how you react to what you’re eating, you can usually figure out what foods don’t agree with you, without spending hundreds of dollars on fancy tests. And an elimination diet can help you do some deeper investigation on your own.
But if you can’t figure out those patterns, and you’re still having some physical symptoms, see your doctor. She might decide nutritional testing is the way to go, to check if you have any nutritional deficiencies or food intolerances you should be aware of.
Set Yourself Up for Success
The recommendations we’ve just gone over are, by no means, comprehensive, but for most people they’ll get you very far. Just as with training, practicing the basics as if they were advanced is the key to advancing. Just do the basics over and over until they’re a part of you.
Our friend and fat loss expert Josh Hillis writes about this in his book Fat Loss Happens on Monday:
People spend way, way too much time trying to find the right diet, when in fact, 90% of the clients I’ve ever had really needed to work on the habits that would have made any of these diets work.
It’s kind of like why the movie The Karate Kid is so terrible. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch it, but it’s the worst lesson in the world: You can win it all if you find the magic move. This is the way that most people treat diets, ‘If I can just find that one magic diet.’
In reality, it’s a lot more like Rocky – a training montage that details months of working on all of the required skills. He runs, he hits the heavy bag, he spars, he does mitt work, he jumps rope, he hits the speed bag, he spars some more. This is all on top of a lifetime of training. And by the end, he’s got all of the skills required. No magic move, just lots of heart and lots of skills.
And to make it even easier to make the decisions you want to, and keep building those skills, we’ve make a Handy Nutrition Guide you can download for free and take with you on the go.
Arm Yourself With Successful Nutrition Tools
Our Handy Nutrition Guide will give you on-the-go tools for making the right nutrition choices for your goals.