Disclaimer: any personal experience that I have with certain diet and/or nutrition protocols is just that - my own personal experience. My age, height, weight, body fat, hormones, health markers, training, sleep schedule, and chronic stress levels are all completely unique. In sum, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best thing for you.
My journey through the fitness world thus far has been quite a doozy. I’ve been the enthusiastic Group Fitness Instructor, Distance Runner, Figure Competitor, and Powerlifter.
Currently, I sling iron, dabble in aerial sports, practice a ton of yoga, and I’m on a mission to improve my mountain biking skills in an attempt to ride downhill next season—which has, obviously, required my happily logging a generous amount of time on my bike in the beautiful Wasatch.
I have an overwhelming desire to experience and do nearly everything athletically possible, and do it really well. Also, I have the attention span of a fruit fly, which has me bounding joyfully from activity to activity.
In order to support my training, and all of my extra-curricular physical endeavors, maintain a physique that I’m happy with, while improving my health, and staying sane (I will admit, that last part is iffy), my nutrition approach and food intake has had to change over and over again. Low fat, low carb, carb cycling, Paleo, IIFYM, Intermittent Fasting… well, I’ve done and ate it all.
I commonly hear people tell me that something worked for them back in college, or back when they were on the track team, or seven years ago before they had their baby. That is great, however it is likely irrelevant. Your age, hormones, activity levels, and every other variable has likely changed since then, so what once worked may not work again.
Seeing as how I’ve altered my body composition, and trained for various physique and performance goals over and over again, I’ve tried quite a few different things over the years when it comes to food, so I’m able to give you some insight based on personal experience.
The internet. Simultaneously the best and worst thing that has ever happened to health and fitness. Years and years ago, when web access was a luxury, we were left to fend for ourselves when it came to determining how to eat in order to improve our health and fitness. We relied on news reports and what magazines claimed, along with a heavy dose of trial and error.
Nowadays, lack of information is hardly our problem. The world wide web is oozing with information, suggestions, and tips on how to get healthier and lose body fat, and most of it is completely contradicting many other things that you read, which has left many in a state of stagnation.
Rather than feeling they have been provided with the tools to make great changes, they are left completely overwhelmed, confused, and suffering from paralyzation from over-analyzation.
For the longest time, low-fat, high-carb diets were all the rage. Bagel shops and specialty smoothie stores were booming due to their fat-free offerings, all of which we happily devoured, because, hello, it was “healthy”.
Things abruptly shifted gears when the Atkins diet stormed the scene, which had people abandoning their bread and low-fat granola to dive headfirst into eggs and cheese stuffed into a low carb wheat wrap on a quest for weight loss.
The once adored carbohydrate became demonized, as this and other high-fat diets took center stage.
Paleo soon followed, bringing along evidence that not only is saturated fat okay to eat, but it’s encouraged, because it’s good for you. Hooray! But, wait, the rules have changed again. You can have animal fat, but now you can’t eat dairy, grains, beans, or legumes, along with anything else that a caveman couldn’t source.
Now, he tide is changing yet again, and the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) approach is all the rage. A quick scroll through Instagram will show many IIFYM advocates posting pics of foods that fly directly in the face of what anybody ever thought “dieting” meant, along with some pretty impressive fat-loss progress pictures.
Ice-cream, anybody? Sure! Just as long as it fits your macros.
Most people want to support their training, alter their body composition, and generally feel better, but there are so many ways to go about it that it is positively daunting to figure out where to start.
Let’s chat about a few of the most popular approaches out there.
Never has a diet protocol incited such chaos on the internet as IIFYM.
For those unfamiliar with If It Fits Your Macros, this is a diet approach used for fat loss in which you have a set amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydate, and dietary fat) determined for the day, and you select foods - or, in some people’s cases, food like substances - to fill that quota. There are no food restrictions, so long as it “fits your macros” you are free to proceed.
The reason that IIFYM has caused such mayhem is because most people have always assumed that successful dieting means having to eat very specific foods - mainly chicken, fish, egg whites, lean cuts of beef, sweet potato, and vegetables.
However, with IIFYM, so long as something fits into your daily macronutrient parameters, you get to eat/drink it, no questions asked.
I dove into IIFYM for a couple of months last summer because I wanted to get leaner and stronger, but most importantly, I needed somebody to hold me accountable to eat more carbohydrates. I had fallen into the low carb trap for far too long (Hey, I make mistakes, too!) and it was affecting my performance and my health.
I hired a trusted colleague who uses an IIFYM approach, and he and I shared common ground - we both believe it is crucial to eat for health and performance by fueling with whole, nutrient dense foods the overwhelming majority of the time, while giving yourself a bit of flexibility to enjoy a treat once in a while.
We bumped my protein intake up, brought my fat intake way down, and slowly increased my carb intake over the course of a couple of months, while consuming mainly whole foods.
My energy skyrocketed, I gained muscle, and lost a bit of bodyfat, but most importantly, I felt better than I had in months.
While I don’t track macros consistently anymore, IIFYM was a beneficial experience for me, and one I still offer as an option to some of my nutrition clients when I feel like it’s a good fit. It helped me figure out where I needed to be with protein, carb, and fat intake to feel, look, and perform my very best.
What I don’t like about IIFYM is that some people treat it as a free pass to eat a bunch of junk and processed food-like substances, which (literally) feeds bad food habits and cravings, not to mention doesn’t bode well for health.
For the relatively lean looking to get leaner, tracking macronutrients, even if just for a few days every month or so to see what you are regularly consuming, will likely be necessary for most.
Yes, you could simply try to “eat a little less, train harder, and hope for the best” but that is a shot in the dark, and typically doesn’t work well, nor is it efficient.
Past a certain point of leanness, most will need a strategic plan and tight control on both food intake and energy expenditure in order to know what needs manipulating to keep you progressing.
If you are willing to track food data diligently, and have good enough habits and self-control to make healthy choices most of the time, then IIFYM may be something to consider, even if just for a little while.
Carb cycling is a dieting protocol that is typically used for people that are seeking to gain muscle, and lose body fat.
Depending on the individual and their goals, there is typically 1-2 really high carb days per week, 2-3 moderate carb intake days per week, and 2-3 really low (or no) carb days per week.
I used carb cycling for a few months about two years ago when I was lifting hard and heavy. While many people rave about carb cycling due to the allure of the high carb days, it was miserable for me, and I dreaded them. Pushing my carbs that high left me feeling heavy, sluggish, and bloated, both on the day of, and the day following.
The low carb days were equally awful, as all of my energy was spent fighting off cravings that were induced from the high days. Pair that with obnoxiously gnawing hunger, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious mental drainage.
While this approach was working physically, and I was getting leaner by the day, it was obnoxious. My blood sugar had more highs and lows than Lindsey Lohan, and I just never felt good.
This goes to show that just because something is effective from a fat loss standpoint, it’s not the right fit for you if every day is a battle. A starchy dream come true for some, I ended up bagging carb cycling after about two months.
Paleo/Primal is a nutrition approach used for optimal health and/or fat loss, and you eat all of the delicious foods a caveman could get his hands on. This means plenty of meat, eggs, dinosaurs*, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and most other plant-based sources of dietary fat. Grains, beans, legumes, sugar, alcohol, processed foods, and dairy are off limits.
*Joking. Kind of. Check your local co-op.
Through all of the changes to my nutrition over the last few years, the one constant has been the prevalence of whole foods in my diet. I am not strict Paleo, and to be honest, I hate that eating good-for-you foods has a formal title, because that just seems silly.
Yes, I eat pancakes before a long day on my bike, and I enjoy homemade carrot cake at any opportunity that I get, but I would estimate that 85% of my food choices fall into the Paleo guidelines for one reason, and one reason only:
I simply feel fantastic eating whole, unprocessed foods.
My energy and digestion are always noticeably better, and above all else, my health is my #1 priority.
Additionally, it’s almost impossible to overeat whole foods. I can easily scarf four or five cookies without even batting an eye, but it’s extremely difficult to overdo meat, asparagus, sweet potato, and some avocado. You eat appropriately sized servings, and badda-bing-badda-bang, you are satisfied. It’s like magic, but tastier!
You can’t say the same for processed foods. No matter how good they taste, those sneaky Frankenfoods are manufactured in a way to make us want more, more, more. These types of foods are what our friends over at Whole30 call, “Food without brakes”, and how true it is. It is a rare individual that can eat eight tortilla chips with 2 tablespoons of guacamole and feel satisfied. For most of us, that is just enough to piss us off.
The trick to eating mainly whole, unprocessed foods while feeling like you aren’t missing out on anything is to take some extra time to make sure it tastes delicious. A quick Google of Paleo recipes will bring up millions of results, and even if you aren’t Paleo, searching for Paleo recipes should ensure that you are eating healthy, whole foods. Plus, the nice thing about eating real food is that the occasional homemade treat doesn't de-rail your health or physique efforts.
Bottom line: you’d be hard-pressed to present a valid argument that eating whole, nutrient-dense foods won’t make you healthier, and feel better.
As we move through life, things change, and our activity levels and lifestyle fluctuates, so we have to alter our food intake to compensate.
When trying to figure out how to formulate a nutrition plan and the amount of food that is best for you, you'll need to experiment for yourself to find what works well for you.
So how do you know what's working well? These are some good questions to ask yourself:
My ideal nutrition setup is a combination of all of the approaches mentioned above.
The overwhelming majority of your foods should come from whole, nutrient-dense sources, but save some room for a treat once in awhile.
Calories and macronutrients do matter when it comes to dialing things in even tighter, however your priority should first be to figure out which foods make you feel amazing and perform well. I believe that carbohydrate should fluctuate a bit depending on that day’s activity level.
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