Well, 80% of your body composition and overall health is the direct result of the food you eat. So if you want to get studly, the first thing you should do is overhaul your diet.
But the conventional wisdom of cutting back on calories, fat, or carbohydrate is an inefficient waste of willpower.
If you want to optimize your diet to easily promote and sustain health and fitness, your guiding principle shouldn’t be “eat less,” but instead “eat better.”
And by taking advantage of several psychological “hacks,” you can effectively automate your diet with much less effort than you could by consciously cutting calories.
The Three Principles of Nutrition
In Michael Pollan’s excellent book, In Defense of Food, he lays out a simple plan for healthy eating that avoids most of the nutritionist nit-picking most of us get inundated with. But he still emphasizes the ideas that you should consciously cut calories (you shouldn’t) and that plant-based diets are superior to animal-based ones (they aren’t).
With a tip o’ the hat to Mr. Pollan, I’d like to present my own “food rules” that are designed to help young, busy guys lose fat and support muscle growth with minimum hassle.
Principle #1: Eat Food.
You wouldn’t put diesel in your car’s gasoline tank and expect it to run properly, so why would you expect the human body to operate well on junk food?
Before recently, humans were strong and lean without needing to put any conscious effort into it. The drastic change in recent decades is the primary result not of sedentary occupations and cheap food (although they certainly play a part), but rather a shift from simple, minimally-processed foods to heavily-refined ones.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is chock-full of sugar, refined vegetable oils, and heavily-processed grains, to say nothing of the plethora of synthetic chemicals in the form of artificial colorings, flavors, and preservatives. All of these things are very new to the human diet on an evolutionary scale, and our bodies have not yet adapted to thrive on them at the high concentrations that we are consuming.
WARNING: your local grocery store actually contains very little food – the vast majority is food products. And yes Virginia, there is a HUGE difference.
Food companies have discovered, researched, and tested the flavors and textures that give us short-term satisfaction and flooded the market with products that meet these specifications, even though the health consequences are generally disastrous in the medium- and long-term.
Leptin resistance leading to overeating, insulin resistance resulting in excess fat storage, and body fat setpoint-deregulation are all primarily results of eating these neolithic foods. In other words, what you eat is making you overweight more than how much you eat.
Gaining fat and losing muscle is bad enough, but when the food you eat threatens to end your life early due to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease, there is something extremely rotten in the state of Denmark.
But in a world where most “healthy” people are making their dietary choices based on calories, fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, and minerals, I suggest you take a more pragmatic approach: eat the same food that has successfully sustained healthy and fit populations for long periods of time.
If you want to eat well, forget about nutrition labels and health claims, just stick close to this cheat sheet:
- Meat and vegetables – Eat lots and lots. And lots. From leaves to roots and steak to liver.
- Eggs, fruit, nuts, and seeds – Go crazy… just not so crazy you forget about meat and veg.
- Dairy, grains, and beans – Be careful, but if you have no known issues with these foods (lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, etc.) you’ll probably be just fine. Still, you might be better off if you limit their consumption, prepare them in traditional ways, or keep them primarily as part of your “cheat meals.”
- Fats and oils – Stick with animal fats (butter, lard, tallow) over vegetable oils (except coconut oil, olive oil, and sesame oil). Don’t worry, saturated fat is much better for you than the polyunsaturated fats found in most vegetable oils.
- Herbs, spices, and condiments (mustard, vinegar, soy sauce, pepper sauce, etc.) – You are going to be miserable if your food isn’t tasty. Get the stuff that isn’t loaded up with sweeteners, don’tcha know!
- Beverages – Water is the big kahuna here, but feel free to enjoy coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages in moderation.
Lastly, don’t worry too much about organic, local, grass-fed, pastured, grass-fed, etc. If you have the extra money and would rather support small farmers over big agribusiness, by all means go for it. But you’ll get far better benefits by switching from chicken nuggets to battery-raised chicken than from the latter to free-range chicken.
Principle #2: Balance Feasting and Fasting.
Conscious caloric restriction (aka “eat less, exercise more”) is a dangerous game with the deck thoroughly stacked against you.
On the off-chance you can keep with it long-term, your metabolism will drop, your willpower will vanish, and your sexual function and mental health will deteriorate. If, like most people, you eventually fall off the wagon, you will probably end up gaining back all the weight you lost and then some, with fat favored over muscle.
The solution? Don’t fight your appetite for extended periods of time.
But don’t order that Crave Crate from White Castle just yet. This does not give you carte blanche to stuff as much food in your belly as possible.
The key here is balancing periods of hunger and satiation. If you are a member of the “six meals a day” crowd, for instance, you’ll want to make sure you don’t eat until you’re stuffed every time, as you’ll be eating again in a couple hours anyways.
But I, along with many other people, have found intermittent fasting to be a MUCH more effective strategy than six (or even three) meals a day. The health advantages include increased fat oxidation, lower insulin levels, and higher levels of growth hormone.
It’s far less hassle than conscious caloric restriction, plus you look like a total badass when you can put down three pounds of pot roast in front of your friends!
Principle #3: Cheat.
Sometimes people get so hardcore about their diets that they refuse to break it for any reason.
This behavior is found in no other animals, with even apparently herbivorous animals occasionally hunting and eating meat.
Let’s get this straight: having a cheat meal (or a few) every week isn’t going to derail your fitness. The only way this could happen is if eating one causes you to completely fall off the wagon, lose your momentum, and fall back to old bad habits. If you are this person, DON’T cheat!
For the rest of us, don’t sweat cutting loose from time to time.
(Quick clarification: for most people, “cheat meals” are defined as overeating meals. Since I believe that high-calorie meals are awesome, as long as you are eating good food and balancing it out with fasting, I use the term to instead refer to meals that fall outside most people’s idea of “healthy”: burgers, pizza, nachos, cookies, ice cream, you know what I’m talking about!)
Some people will hype the supposed health benefits of cheat meals from a physical perspective, but for me the greatest benefit from not being a puritan is the psychological one gained from not feeling deprived all the time.
Remember this: 90% is perfect, 75% is good enough. If 75%-90% of the food you are eating is quality stuff, you can afford to occasionally throw caution to the wind.
Many will say that the best diet is the one you can stick with, and I agree. Feeling like you can NEVER have pizza, even though you want it so damned bad, is no way to go through life. Yes, you want to be fit and healthy. But you gotta make room for a little debauchery as well.
Putting Theory to Practice
These three principles should guide your entire attitude towards nutrition. By following them, you will achieve easy fat loss (unlike the torture that is conscious caloric restriction), and set yourself up to build muscle effectively through exercise.
In the previous post on willpower, I said that the way to achieve this is by:
- Transforming your surroundings to reduce harmful temptations.
- Building rituals that automatically promote and sustain your health and fitness.
- Making slow, steady progress every day.
By applying this to the three nutrition principles above, the best way to “automate” your diet and minimize the investment of willpower is by:
- Increasing the availability of healthy food in your environment while decreasing the availability of unhealthy food.
- Building the unconscious habit of acquiring and preparing healthy food.
- Moving measurably closer to this ideal every day, even if you are far from it now, and even if it takes you a long time.
We are surrounded by food designed to provide short-term gratification while giving little in the way of long-term health benefits, with fast food and microwave dinners being both cheap and ubiquitous.
But I say you beat the bastards at their own game.
If you’re gonna be surrounded by the kind of junk food that will give you a woman-repellent beer gut, then dammit you’ve gotta get faster food than that around you. You need a fridge, freezer, and cupboard full of healthy, prepared food that you just need to quickly reheat.
We guys are pretty notorious for surviving on little more than frozen pizza, mac and cheese, and chips. The idea of preparing anything more complex than a cup of coffee makes us throw up our hands in exasperation before we can even try it. (Let’s be honest, even the thought of brewing fresh coffee seems a bit much sometimes.)
Here’s the good news: buying and cooking food from scratch (or near-scratch) can be inexpensive, quick, and easy, if you know the right tricks.
I guarantee you can get to the place where you can make healthy food with minimal investment of time, money, and energy, using whatever you may have on hand. No complex recipes, and no expensive ingredients!
Eliminate the Junk
Remember the cheat sheet of healthy foods above? Take a look at your refrigerator and cupboards. What percentage of the items you see match what is on that list?
To resist temptation, I suggest overhauling your fridge and cupboard so that 75%-90% of the food you have can be found on that list. To do this you’ll probably need to get rid of a lot of food, and you can either:
- Donate it to a charitable organization.
- Have a bunch of friends over to kill it off.
- Have “one last hurrah” and gorge yourself on these foods until there’s little left.
Extreme? Maybe. I still think you should keep a little bit of your guilty pleasure food around, but the more unhealthy food you remove from the fridge, freezer, and cupboard, the less likely you’ll be to unconsciously give in to temptation next time you get the munchies.
The 80% Grocery Shopping Method
Of course, minimizing the amount of guilty pleasure food you are exposed to is only good if you can also restrict the amount that comes into your home as well.
If your goal is to get to 80% healthy food in your cupboard and fridge, you should then aim for about 80% healthy food in your grocery cart. As a quick and dirty guide, ask yourself all these questions before you buy an item:
- If you left this sitting outside for a week, would you still eat it?
- Does it have a nutrition facts label?
- Does it have more than five ingredients?
- Would you have difficulty identifying those ingredients if you saw a picture of them?
- Have people been eating this for less than 100 years?
Every “yes” answer you come up with for the above questions is further indication that what you have in your hand isn’t food at all. You might be fine with moderate amounts of foods that only give you three “yeses,” but anything more than that and you should run to the hills, run for your life!
Learn How to Cook
It’s nearly impossible to find healthy pre-prepared food.
The rock-bottom prices for refined beans and grains (think sugar, flour, soybean oil, corn oil, and high fructose corn syrup), along with consumers’ fear over meat and animal fat all but ensure that most of the food you pick up from restaurants, delis, and vendors will be doused in vegetable oil, bursting with sugar, and padded out with white bread, pasta, or other refined grains.
The easiest way around this is to eat the majority of your meals at home. Now, there are two ways to do this:
- Hire a personal chef and point him to this post for direction.
- Learn how to cook.
I’m going to make the bold assumption that you probably don’t have a private jet, butler, or a second home on a Greek island, which makes the second option the most sensible one for you.
But egads, isn’t cooking labor intensive? Doesn’t it cost more money and require plenty of willpower, the very resource we are supposed to be conserving?
I feel ya’ pain. Check out this hilarious comic and come right back.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: learning how to cook is going to take some willpower, but instead of using it up every day on resisting your appetite and drowsiness, it just takes a little upfront to learn the four or five basic skills that will ensure you can always whip up a tasty meal without being a slave to a strict recipe or spending a small fortune on obscure ingredients you’ll only use once.
Think of it as paying for a car in full vs. taking out a loan and making recurring payments, and thus saving a ton of money in the big picture.
I suggest you learn just one cooking method per week. In a month or two, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to improvise a healthy meal no matter what you have on hand. Here’s the “big skills” and what you’ll be able to prepare by learning them.
1. Roasting – Enclosed cooking using dry heat (such as an oven, or a covered grill).
Roasting is best used for cooking large pieces of meat and starchy roots and tubers:
- Beef roasts
- Pork roasts
- Whole chickens
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter squash
And all ya gotta do is set your oven for 350 Fahrenheit, cover everything in fat, toss on some spices or herbs, and throw it in a baking dish, in the oven, and find something else to do until thoroughly cooked (or medium rare for beef).
2. Frying and Sautéing – Open cooking using direct heat (in a frying pan, or on an open grill).
Frying and sautéing are great for smaller steaks and fillets, as well as most non-starchy vegetables. Sautéed onions and garlic are an excellent way to add flavor to any dish:
- Pork chops
- Chicken parts
- Fish steaks/fillets
Add some fat to a hot frying pan and toss in the meat or veg. Flip the meat once until fully cooked (poultry and pork) or until medium rare to medium (steak and fish). Stir the veggies around to cook evenly. Season as needed.
3. Steaming – Closed heating using water vapor.
Steaming is awesome for cruciferous and leafy vegetables:
Start a small amount of water boiling in a pot you can cover. Throw everything in a steamer basket (only a couple of bucks and available everywhere), place in the pot, and cover for 5-7 minutes. Season like crazy.
4. Boiling – Cooking in boiling liquid.
Can you say soup? Tossing a bunch of scraps in some boiling water, wine, or stock (perhaps with some sauteed veggies as well) is an excellent way to make stews, hardboiled eggs, and yes, soup.
Throw basically anything into some liquid in a pot. Boil for at least a half hour.
And that’s all there is to it, folks.
Although most cookbooks try to complicate things, if you learn the basic skills of roasting, frying/sautéing, steaming, and boiling, you’ll be able to throw something tasty and healthy together in all situations.
If you try just one of these each weekend, in a month you’ll be fully capable of cooking the majority of your meals. Before you know it, you’ll be able to apply all these skills with no effort, and no willpower, invested.
And that’s the truth!
Cook in Bulk
Most guys are afraid of learning how to cook because they think it is:
And who can blame them? If you were to make a meal from scratch every night, you would never get anything else done.
The solution? Cook massive amounts of food, keeping leftovers in the fridge and freezer.
I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret when it comes to food preparation: it takes the same amount of time to cook a meal for one as a meal for eight. Why is this?
For the same reason that books are published in printings rather than on demand.
The setup costs are going to be the same whether you publish one book or one million books, plus they can print quicker and more efficiently if they batch them all together at once.
Similarly, cooking a roast of beef, carrots, and potatoes will take you the same amount of time and effort whether you whip up enough for a day, a week, or even a month.
Personally, I spend a couple hours most weekends cooking up Herculean amounts of food for the oncoming week. I end up spending less time in the kitchen than people doing “30 minute meals” every night, and I’ve got a fridge full of delicious goodness whenever the urge to chow down comes on.
So from now on, don’t half-ass it in the kitchen. Cook enough food to feed an army, and you’ll be sitting pretty. I (and many other people) find that prepping food once a week is ideal, but some “ninjas” have been known to do once-a-month-cooking (OAMC) as well. (I’ll be experimenting with this and getting back to you with the results, so make sure to subscribe if you haven’t already.)
Extra Credit: Sell Your Microwave
Don’t worry, I’m not one-a-them yahoos that thinks that reheating food by microwave is gonna kill ya. (On the one hand it makes sense that dousing your food in radiation is a bad idea, on the other hand the science doesn’t back this theory up at all.)
Actually, microwaving can be an excellent way to quickly reheat food, “bake” potatoes, and steam vegetables.
On the other hand, when was the last time you steamed broccoli in the microwave?
Most people use their microwaves primarily to heat up:
- Mac and cheese
- Pizza rolls
- White Castle sliders
- TV dinners
Okay, maybe not EXACTLY those things, but I’m sure you get the idea.
By getting rid of your microwave, you basically cut off your ability to prepare 90% of the food products that are successfully marketed by the food companies.
Despite what most health “experts” will tell you, your appetite is not your enemy.
Conscious caloric restriction may very well work to help you lose weight in the short term, but it is an absolute disaster in the long term.
Instead of “eating less,” you should be striving to “eat better.”
By eating primarily the satiating foods the human body has evolved to thrive on, you can eat until full without worrying that your body will prioritize fat storage over muscle growth.
By balancing feasting with fasting, you won’t deprive your body and force it to go into “starvation mode,” busily packing away energy for a perceived famine.
And by incorporating “cheat meals” of your guilty pleasures, you’ll never have to give up any of your favorite foods completely and feel restricted.
Ideally, implementing these principles into your life should be done with a minimal investment of your willpower. You can do this by strategically altering your environment, creating new positive habits, and making steady progress.
I believe that the small handful of strategies here can help almost everyone to eat better: to enjoy their food while acquiring (and maintaining) seriously kick-ass health and fitness.
Now’s Your Turn…
As lengthy as this post is, it’s nothing without your own ideas. Do you know any “hacks” that allow you to eat better without an excessive investment of willpower? Any questions on how to implement any of these ideas? Drop me a line in the comments section!