Let's face it.
We all spend a lot of time focusing on crap that won't get us anywhere.
I mean really, spending 40+ hours researching the perfect dosing and timing of beta-alanine when you haven't meal prepped or consistently hit calories?
There is a well understood and defined hierarchy of importance when it comes to making serious progress.
Are you following that hierarchy? If not, you are leaving serious gains on the table.
1. Make sure your diet matches your goals
While this first factor may sound incredibly simple, so many people are eating the exact opposite way they need to be in lieu of eating for their goals.
I had a client come to me who wanted to put on 30 pounds of muscle, but was stuck and just couldn’t make progress. When he showed me his food log it was immediately apparent why we was spinning his wheels.
Related: Forging Elite Fitness - The Real Reason You're Not Shredded
To borrow a friend of mine’s saying, “He was eating what my left glute eats for lunch”. Someone who wants to put on 30 pounds of muscle won’t make any sort of progress following a 1500 calorie a day, low-protein vegan diet.
If you want to put on muscle you have to train your face off and you really have to follow the advice of the Olympic weightlifter Donny Shankle, “Ya gotta eat”.
Now, on the other side of the spectrum, you almost certainly can’t lose 100 pounds, lean out, and get shredded following the 5,000 calorie a day “see food” diet.
It really is all about taking approximately 5 minutes to sit down, figure out your goal, prioritize your nutrition to reach that goal, and then executing your diet plan.
If you don’t do that… you might as well ignore the rest of this list.
2. All about Them calories
After you’ve figure out your goals, the single biggest factor to consider in matching your diet to your goal is total calorie intake.
Now I know what you are going to say, “but what about macros, hormones, insulin, and all that stuff that makes a big difference”?
Well, and I hate to do it, but I am going to burst that bubble a little bit. The science is pretty darn clear that whatever “metabolic advantage” might be present in the shifting of macronutrients absolutely pales in comparison to the effect total calorie intake has on weight management.
Related: How To Build A Fat Loss Meal Plan - A Step-by-Step Guide
Seriously, any 200-300 calorie a day advantage that some specific macro plan might bring just doesn’t really mean much in the real world.
So what do we mean by matching your goals to calories first?
If you want to put on muscle, you need to consume more than you are expending on a consistent basis. One day a week just won’t cut it. You are also going to want to train your face off to make sure those calories are going toward building tissue; you need that muscle building stimulus.
If you want to lose weight, make sure you are expending more than you are consuming on a consistent basis. Yes, the equation is a bit more complicated than that, but in reality that is the biggest component and the best place to start.
Once you’ve got your calories under control and in line with your overall goal, then you can being to think about macronutrients.
3. Protein before all else
When you get down to brass tacks, it is pretty darn clear protein plays a pretty big role in nutrition.
Well, consuming enough protein is critical for adding lean tissue to your body. Secondly, having an adequate amount of protein in your diet appears to help control appetite better than the other macronutrients.
At least, this is the case for most people. Science suggests protein helps reduce the loss of lean muscle tissue during weight loss phases and it also appears to be more important as we age.
A good range for most people to aim for is between .7-1.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight depending on your goals, body composition, weight, and training style. The average person can usually default to 1 gram per pound of body weight or 1 gram per pound of their goal weight (hat tip to Alan Aragon for the second recommendation) as their starting point.
4. Macros over Quality
I am going to catch some heat for this but that is ok. When we talk about the hierarchy of importance, the macronutrients you get from your diet are more important for making aesthetic and strength progress than the quality of food in your diet.
Now, this is not a plug for IIFYM or free reign to live on Cinnamon Toast Crunch, whey protein, and bulletproof coffee, there are some caveats to this.
Related: Why Flexible Dieting Is Superior To Clean Eating
First, while macros are more important, the quality of your food can actually determine how easy it is for you to hit your macros. For example, higher quality, “whole foods” are often times comprised of either protein, carbs, or fat, so it makes it substantially easier to create meals that hit your macronutrient goals.
Secondly, there is this other important thing called health. Yeah I know, it is a huuuugggeee drag to focus on health too, but the quality of your food actually effects health parameters.
Higher quality foods are often more rich in the micronutrients (you know--the important stuff like vitamins and minerals) that let your body function properly and contribute to your overall health.
The idea is that Macros > Quality allows you to be more flexible with your diet. I’m not suggesting you jump off the high dive and straight into the deep end of eating with reckless abandon. All I’m saying is that it opens up the ability to fit the birthday cake or a nightly small bowl of ice cream into your life. Essentially, if you are smart you can in fact have your cake and eat it too.
The Wrap Up
We often lose the forest for the trees and spend a disproportionate amount of time sweating the stuff that doesn’t really matter.
It is human nature though, we all like to find the secret, the one tool, or the one “hack” that will get us results instantaneously. It’s easier to do that for some things than it is for others. However, we don’t need to make consuming the proper diet harder than it needs to be.
When it comes to figuring out the nutrition aspect of your training, below are really the top 5 things to focus on:
- Focus on the bigger picture.
- Figure out your goals.
- Match your calorie intake to your goals.
- Prioritize protein
- Macros are often more important than food quality
Now go forth, prioritize, execute, and reach your goals!