It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
This iconic saying nicely describes the current status of the nutrition industry.
The explosion of the internet and easy DIY website construction blogs and personal websites have led to an explosion of nutrition content on the web.
This means that more content related to nutrition and diets is available now than ever before, and it’s right at your fingertips.
However, if you follow the hottest nutrition blogs it seems like we don't know anything about nutrition.
I mean, how many times have you seen the following articles in the same day, “Carbs Make You Fat and Cause Diabetes” and “High-Carb Diets Lower Risk of Heart Disease”?
The problem with most of the information floating around out there is it focuses on selling something, sensationalizing something, or generating clicks for an email list. The other problem is they focus on minutiae that don’t matter or are horribly inaccurate.
However, if you follow the actual nutrition science, it is very clear that while there are details and nuances we haven’t figured out, the basic principles are pretty clear and well supported by over 50 years of scientific data.
The problem with most of this information is it’s dry, boring to read, inaccessible to many people, and often times written so ridiculously that even I don’t want to spend the time unraveling bad communication.
Good news: We can actually take a lot of the scientific mumbo jumbo learned over the last 50 years and distill it down into something digestible.
1. The Goal is the Goal is the Goal
There is no one diet, calorie intake, nutrition framework, food list, etc, that fits all goals. When we talk about the single most important pillar of dietary success it is this: Be clear about your goal and stay focused on it for a meaningful amount of time. That means the 3 week cleanse is pointless for 99% of humans.
For example, if your goal is to put on 15 pounds of lean muscle tissue you need to fully comprehend what that means and what it takes to get there. If this is indeed the goal then you are going to need to prioritize the following things:
To accrete that much muscle mass you have to be in a fairly large calorie surplus, first and foremost. Everything else comes second to this. Including all the nuances of food quality. You can eat as clean and nutrient dense as you want but you have to focus on calories.
There are other times in your life where you can “eat the rainbow”. But now is not the time to worry about that as much.
You wanna grow? After you hit your calorie needs you need the building blocks of muscle tissue to gain that mass. So you need to hit protein at the high end of what gets turned into muscle mass. Not maxing this out leaves gains on the table.
Then you need carbohydrates, because maximal muscle growth occurs with protein and carbohydrates present. So now is NOT the time for a low-carb diet. It isn’t in line with your goals.
Now if your goal is to lose 10 pounds in two months then your priorities change and so does your strategy. Calories are still critical but food behavior is probably more important to lowering calories than they were when you were cramming as many calories as possible.
For protein you need to consume enough to not lose muscle mass but maxing it out is probably a waste of calories since the goal isn’t to grow but to maintain.
You will also have to focus on more nutrient dense foods, since at lower calories you are consuming less food. So, each food you eat matters more in terms of its micronutrient composition and the properties that regulate satiety.
As you can see, clearly understanding your goals and knowing how to prioritize your nutrition to focus on that goal is critical. If you don’t, you spend a lot of time spinning your wheels.
2. Don’t Get Distracted by the Furry Squirrels.
If you grew up with a dog and walked it, then you know what happens to dogs when a squirrel runs by. They forget everything that they are currently doing and chase that squirrel. This makes them deviate from the path they were on.
This is why most people fail, they get distracted by the furry squirrels. They diet hop. This month it’s Paleo, next month it’s Keto, then it’s the next flavor of the month. If a diet system is based on something gimmicky, it’s a gimmick. If it’s based on something super sexy like a key supplement or magic macro ratio, it’s a recycled version of something from the 80’s.
The trick is to not get distracted every 2-3 months by the newest, shiniest diet. The trick is find a diet program that works for you (like really works) and stick to it for 6-12 months and take objective measures along the way.
3. Focus on the Big Stuff
Despite the din and cacophony of the nutrition blogosphere, nutrition isn’t nearly as complicated as most people make it out to be. Trust me. I do nutrition and metabolism science as a profession and have coached thousands of people, I know how complicated you can make it. But the truth is, the things that move the needle for people are the big picture things.
To borrow some ideas from Tim Ferris, 20% of things take you 80% of the way to your goals. This holds true for dietary success.
What are those things that are 20%? Great question.
Food environment: Trying to follow a successful diet plan living in a candy story would be impossible. If you don’t set your environment up for success you are going to be fighting an uphill battle every day. Set yourself up for success. You can do your own grocery shopping, so take ownership and handle that.
Caloric balance: It doesn’t matter what some internet whack-job says about thermodynamics not applying to the human body. It does. Every single piece of scientific data supports this. If you can control caloric balance you can control weight. Now, lower doesn’t always mean better but controlling this balance is key.
Food quality: Yes, you can lose weight eating Pop Tarts and ice cream, but often times by making your food choices of low “quality”, you set up habits that don’t really set you up for long term success. These foods are often also higher in food reward, making self-control more difficult.
Making the bulk of your diet from higher “quality” foods can make it much easier to hit nutrition goals and stay on point with your diet.
If you handle those 3 things, your focus is in the right place and your odds of success are pretty high.
4. There is No Magical Diet
Sorry bro. There is no magical secret to weight loss, losing body fat, or getting super jacked beyond the basics. All those $97 ebooks you bought were really educational, but you didn’t get a magic key to the fat loss kingdom (or whatever other door you were looking for).
Seriously, none of the following have anything magical about them outside of the basic ideas laid out above.
- Zone Macro Ratios
- Carb Backloading
- The Sirt Diet (I still can’t believe this is an actual thing)
This list can go on for quite a while.
They can work because when applied based on the principles above they control calories, food quality, and environment. Eating broccoli to activate your sirtuin proteins for magical health properties isn’t the cure for all chronic disease… we tried that. No seriously, there is a ton of research on things like this, it doesn’t work like that.
The Wrap Up
Understand your goals and stay laser focused on them.
Don’t get distracted by the newest hottest diet trend; it will sell a lot of books and spark Facebook debates but ultimately will just distract you.
Focus on the key pillars of calories: environment, calories, and food quality.
Let the dreams of a silver bullet diet die and take up the mantel of doing the hard work of following solid nutritional principles and work hard to reach your goals step by step.