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As a strength coach, I need to have a fairly good grasp on how to fuel the body for optimal training performance and recovery. I’m no nutritionist and there are many people out there more qualified to discuss this area. However, I aim to touch on some of the basics that should give most of us a good starting point.
1. Make a comprehensive food, training and body measurements diary.
2. Go food shopping with a list of quality whole foods.
3. Learn how to cook and prepare meals in advance.
4. Reduce carbohydrate intake if fat loss is the main goal.
5. Increase our intake of protein, vegetables and “good” fats and include these in every meal.
6. Drink more water, cut down on adding sugar to tea and coffee and reduce intake of carbonated/energy drinks and alcohol. Be wary of certain meal replacement “supplements” and products.
7. Get into the habit of eating breakfast and then at frequent, regular intervals throughout the day.
8. Train for increased strength and muscle mass with weights.
9. Have treats and “cheat” meals but don’t throw the full day away.
10. Monitor progress and adapt accordingly.
For the majority of the people I’ve trained over the years, the number one goal is to reduce body fat. For most of us, even if we have the best training programme in the world, we will struggle to drop by fat if we don’t have the basics of good nutrition in place. You could train with the same intensity, focus and determination as an athlete or fitness model with the best training programmes; but these efforts will be wasted if the body isn’t fuelled correctly.
Not only is better nutrition the key to becoming leaner, more importantly it’s vital to our long term health and wellbeing. Formula One teams wouldn’t put poor quality fuel and oil into their cars. equally we shouldn’t expect a finely tuned, high performance body if we constantly fuel it with cheap, processed food or fail to fuel it consistently enough.
Another key point for those beginning a training programme in the gym: The quality and consistency of our nutrition becomes even more important as our training frequency and intensity increases. A common mindset among many starting out in the gym, goes along the lines of: “I’m exercising now, so I can eat what I want” or “I can just go to the gym and burn off any excess calories I consume”. This is a mindset we need to snap out of if we are serious about becoming leaner. Hard physical training is stressful on the human body and the right nutrition is one of the keys to helping us to recover and adapt to become fitter, stronger and leaner. Not only this, we also need to realise that our nutrition and exercise habits affect our hormonal system which can determine how effectively our body stores or uses fat. It’s a complex system which is way beyond the scope of this blog post, but basically if our diet is high in processed foods, added sugar, trans fats etc; our body will become better at storing fat. So if we go to the gym with the goal of become leaner, we can now see that we would be defeating our objectives if we were to go home and eat rubbish most of the time.
I’ve viewed many client food diaries, some better than others, but many of them highlight very similar areas which can be improved on. Here are ten ways to take your nutrition from shocking to shining!
1. Make a comprehensive food, training and body measurements diary
This is initially the most important thing we can do and for many will result in the surprisingly stark realisation that our nutrition isn’t quite as good as we thought it was! A food diary has the following key purposes:
- Recording meal times, quantities and types of food and drink will make us more aware of our nutritional habits.
- I recommend using the app: MyFitnessPal as this can help us to calculate calories and Macronutrient ratios (percentages of carbs, protein and fats). However, I’d also advise writing a food diary down on a piece of paper or on your phone, as MyFitnessPal doesn’t allow you to record times of meals and snacks.
- It will highlight the things you do well and also main areas to improve upon.
- Continuing to make a food diary will give you a visual log of improvements you’ve made to your nutrition.
- It will make you think more about what and when you’re eating and drinking.
Making a training diary alongside your food diary is important as our nutrition should be dictated by our training goals and the type, intensity and duration of your training and we can then assess our pre and post-training habits as these are crucial times where nutrition is concerned.
Recording our body measurements (including body fat %) in line with our food diary will allow us to assess if the changes to our nutrition are effective. Progress photos, noting how clothes feel and comments from others are also other great ways to create a bigger picture of our progress.
2. Go food shopping with a list of quality whole foods
The time we spend creating a food shopping list and in the shop putting items into our basket is absolutely vital if we want to have the nutrition of a champion! Supermarkets are incredibly challenging places to buy decent quality food. I’d estimate that 80-90% of the foods on the shelves – and in most people’s trolleys – is rubbish! And by rubbish, I mean processed, sugar-laden, trans-fat-filled, or misleading “healthy” products which will likely do more harm than good. I do eat my fair share of crap foods, but most of the time this will make up just 10-20% of my overall nutrition. Let’s be honest, a lot of these foods are addictive and taste great at the time but eating them too frequently will leave us feeling and looking horrible!
Read ingredients labels on foods. As a general rule, the more ingredients on the list and the harder they are to pronounce, the more we should put them back on the shelves! Buy more of the following:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Fresh meat and eggs.
- Quality sources of carbohydrates such as sweet potato, potato, basmati rice, oats etc.
- Foods high in “good” fats such as coconut oil (for cooking), extra virgin olive oil (for dressings), nuts, flaxseeds, avocado, oily fish etc.
- Other foods with single ingredients (nothing added or taken away).
- Organic and locally produced foods, where possible.
3. Learn how to cook and prepare meals in advance
Let’s face it, in today’s world we want things faster and more convenient. We want faster wifi and in every public place, one-click online purchases with next day delivery. If we could look leaner by taking a pill, we would! As the system we live in increasingly tries to squeeze every last ounce of hard work out of us, many of us are led to believe that we just “don’t have the time” to prepare food and would rather it be ready in an instant. Unfortunately, many opt for fast/convenience foods which will not help us in our quest to become lean, mean strong machines!
The solution is to set aside time to prepare a batch of food for the next few days. One hour should be enough time to prep three days worth of meals. So every 72 hours, if we find one spare hour to do this, we will be on the road to success. Box it up and refrigerate and we have meals ready to take to work, on days out or ready waiting for us after a tough day when we “can’t be bothered” to cook anything.
I like to cook a few diced fresh chicken breasts with plenty of fresh vegetables and spices in a large wok, cook a large cup of rice; leaving plenty for the next couple of days. It’s in the fridge and needs eating so I will make sure not to waste it! Coming home to an empty fridge can lead to just grabbing the quickest thing to eat, regardless of how good it is for you. So, if we want to be lean and have more energy, let’s be organised and prep our meals!
4. Reduce carbohydrate intake if fat loss is the main goal
If you are already quite lean and the priority is to build muscle/fuel regular high intensity training/sporting performance, quality carbs are highly important and should be included in every meal. However, for those with the priority of reducing body fat, it is commonly argued that carbs should be used a lot more sparingly. This is because carbs are our body’s primary energy source for strenuous physical activity, hence athletes; marathon runners and those lifting heavy weights frequently will often load up high carb meals. However, a lot of people eat like this but will go to work and sit at a desk most of the day and then on the sofa most evenings. As the muscles and liver are limited in their capacity to store glycogen (carbs), if we eat too many carbs it results in an increased storage of body fat, more so for those who are sedentary and not doing anything active enough to require this additional fuel.
It is now easier to understand why training for strength and hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) is so important for those who want to lose body fat. This will be discussed in more detail in point 8.
One of the things I come across in most food diaries of people who are struggling to become leaner, is that it looks like they’re eating like a bodybuilder during a “bulking” phase or like someone who is running a marathon the next day i.e. lots of carbs in every meal. There’s a lot to research and understand when it comes to selecting the correct macros for our goals and it can be quite complex to understand. Here is a good article which makes it simple:
A few general guidelines if fat loss is the main goal:
– Stick to quality carbs: Sweet potato, potato, rice, oats, plenty of veg, quinoa etc and reduce processed carbs such as bread, biscuits, cakes and pastries.
- Limit the bulk of your carb intake to before and after intense training sessions. Doing so will ensure that we have the energy to train hard, replenish our muscles and also will make us think about increasing our training frequency and intensity if we fancy eating more carbs!
- On rest days, keep carbs low and protein and fat high.
- Save “cheat” meals to training days ideally, where our bodies will at least require some of the additional calories we’ll be taking on board.
5. Increase our intake of protein, vegetables and “good” fats and include these in every meal
It’s rare that I come across a food diary which includes protein in every meal and this is something that will hold us back from dropping body fat. Increasing our protein intake not only makes our meals very filling and will keep hunger at bay, but in conjunction with a solid weights training programme (which I will discuss soon), it will help us to maintain our muscle mass, boost our metabolism and make our bodies more efficient at using fat as a fuel source.
A good guideline for someone involved in lifting weights frequently is to eat 2 grams of protein per kilo body mass (this is on the higher end of what is advised) E.g. If you weigh 80kg, aim for 160 grams of protein per day. Ideally, this would be spilt across the day rather than taken onboard during two or three large meals. Six meals including 26-27g of protein spread across the day would be ideal. This would approximately be equivalent to one chicken breast, one lamb steak, 100g of peanut butter, 800ml of whole milk, 260g of cottage cheese or 4.5 eggs. Now, this is a lot of protein! However, that doesn’t mean to eat a full tub of cottage cheese or six table spoons of peanut butter for one meal (although I will sometimes do the latter as I love PB!) Our carb sources such as rice and potatoes contain a good amount of protein, plus you can mix your protein sources e.g. two eggs with 65g of cottage cheese and 200ml milk. Quinoa is an excellent choice for pre/post workout meals as it has 4.4g protein per 100g when cooked.
Contrary to popular beliefs, fats are good for us. Avocados, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, whole nuts, peanut butter, milled flax seeds and oily fish for example should all be staples in our nutrition.
My fellow strength coach, Nick Hewick recently wrote a nice article on the benefits of fats:
and also one on “fat-free” foods and how misleading they are:
So make sure to include plenty of protein and “good” fats in your nutrition plan. And lift heavy weights frequently to put that protein to extra good use!
6. Drink more water, cut down on adding sugar to tea and coffee and reduce intake of carbonated/energy drinks and alcohol. Be wary of certain meal replacement “supplements” and products
Most of us already know that sticking to water and cutting out unnecessary drinks which contain excess calories will have a positive effect on our health and physical appearance. Yet many of us still add sugar to drinks, drink alcohol daily and chug “energy” drinks and fruit juices. Yes, water may be boring but if we want to be leaner, this will be our choice of drink. It’s initially tough to cut out sugar but once we gradually cut down, and eventually cut it out, the body feels much better without it and it isn’t missed. Even “diet” soft drinks are detrimental and will rob you of progress due to the amount of additives and other nasties in there. Equally, if you look at the ingredients list of certain meal replacement supplements, there can be a similar amount of added crap in there that won’t be beneficial to our health and goals. Stick to eating real food and drinking water for the most part! It all comes down to how much we want to progress!
Buy a large water bottle and monitor your intake. The water bottle I use is a 1.5 litre Nalgene Wide-Mouth Silo (google for the best prices as they change). I make sure to drink at least two of these (total of 3 litres) per day, often more like three of them on long days! Most of our cells in our bodies are made up of water and drinking more water include the following benefits:
- Improved cell function: better at transporting nutrients and maintaining body temperature etc.
- Less unnecessary calories through drinking sugary drinks. Water is calorie free and can also fill us up and satisfy your hunger to a degree.
- Better brain function, concentration and energy levels to perform better at work, in the gym or in your sport.
- More effective muscular function which leads to better quality training and therefore adaptations which can lead to a leaner physique.
- Water is relatively very cheap and we can use the money saved from buying packaged drinks, on better quality food.
7. Get into the habit of eating breakfast and then at frequent, regular intervals throughout the day
When we wake up in the morning, our bodies have gone without food for many hours. Our brain and muscles are depleted of energy therefore it’s important to eat at this time in order to restore our system with the nutrients it requires to operate optimally for the day ahead. Eating breakfast speeds up our metabolism and gets our body fired up from its sleepy, fasted state. Our mood is boosted and we are then less likely to snack on convenience junk foods later in the morning.
If our nutrition consists of just one or two meals per day (but very high calorie meals), as already discussed; any excess energy will be stored as fat. Alternatively, eating smaller meals every two to four hours will make it easier for our bodies to absorb nutrients for energy and repairing muscles. Also, our insulin, blood glucose and energy levels will remain a lot more stable by eating quality foods more often but in smaller quantities.
8. Train for increased strength and muscle mass with weights
Ok, this isn’t anything to do with changing your nutrition directly, but it is something that is highly important in terms of helping to reduce body fat. Combining a good progressive lifting programme with a quality recovery strategy is the best way to preserve/increase muscle mass, which is vital in order to increase our metabolism. Muscle requires energy to operate, therefore the more muscle we have, the better our bodies becomes at storing and using carbs, rather than having them converted to fat.
Even if the goal is purely to reduce body fat, lifting weights will help to prevent losing muscle mass. Less muscle = slower metabolism = our body burns calories at a slower rate and is better at storing fat.
So, let’s get ourselves into the gym and lifting. This is only one of the many benefits of shifting heavy iron!
9. Have treats and “cheat” meals but take it easy and don’t throw the full day away!
In the fitness industry, we often talk about or hear about “cheat” meals and “cheat” days. What this means is that when we are sticking to a strict nutrition regime, we will occasionally allow ourselves food that is not a part of the plan.
I believe this is important as it allows us enjoy a treat now and then and we really do appreciate and enjoy these a lot more. I’ll be honest, I love food. I could eat a full packet of biscuits, tub of ice cream and large bar of chocolate every day quite easily. But if I were to do this, I wouldn’t appreciate this type of food anymore and quite frankly I would feel and look a lot worse off! I still eat these foods now and then but make sure that my other meals stick to the points I’ve already mentioned in this post.
Many food diaries I come across look pretty good throughout the week but the full weekend goes out of the window. I do expect to see a couple of naughties here and there, but when we eat crap for most of the weekend, ok; but we then shouldn’t really have the right to question why we aren’t getting leaner.
Let’s look forward to our treats but make sure our meals around them are full of quality whole foods!
10. Monitor progress and adapt accordingly
Refer back to point number 1 and reassess your progress. Everyone is different and this needs to be taken into account.
If we’re struggling to see results, we need to change our nutrition slightly. E.g. If we’re not getting any leaner, let’s have a look at reducing our carb intake/portion sizes and increasing training frequency and intensity. However, it could be that our training and nutrition is spot on but if we’re tired and stressed out, these may be the areas holding us back from achieving the best results.
On the other hand, it may be that you’re an ectomorph (having a naturally slim build) struggling to gain muscle. In this instance, we really need to be quite diligent about eating enough quality calories, and frequently enough. Couple this with consistent progressive overload in the gym for best results.
A mesomorph (naturally broad shoulders and athletic build) is capable of adding muscle relatively quickly up to a point, but if not careful will gain body fat quickly also. Aim to eat relatively low carb meals at all times except before and after training sessions if struggling to stay lean.
An endomorph (stocky build with thicker waists) will find it the hardest to lose body fat but will find it easier to gain muscle than an ectomorph. Nutrition and controlling calories/carbs becomes very important if fat loss is the goal to this type, as is making the most of your potential to build muscle by lifting frequently.
Breaking habits is a tough thing to do. But it all comes down to how much we want it. When we look at the points made, a lot of us already know about these things. However, few of us actually follow these guidelines consistently enough to see results. We are complex creatures but I believe a lot of it does boil down to what we actually value deep down inside. What do you value more: the constant instant, but short-lived highs of processed food or our long term health and wellbeing? It’s a question that a lot of us probably choose to ignore trying to answer, especially in today’s world of instant gratification. I do believe, though, that we are all capable of making change for the better. To quote inspirational speaker, Robin Sharma: “All change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end”. So let’s persevere and start making some long term changes!