With nutrition, the truth is out there.
Most of the world thinks (and wants you to think) that nutrition has to be incredibly complicated to be effective.
Effective nutrition for looking and feeling better is about doing a few (really important) things consistently. I call these things the “big rocks” of nutrition. These are the short list of things that really matter.
Without them, all the other stuff doesn’t really matter. With them, all the of the other stuff becomes even more effective (if you even want or need to dabble with “more”.)
The struggles of most to transform their bodies despite knowing a lot of training and nutrition and trying to eat better and workout hard, can be traced back to a failure to identify and master the big rocks of nutrition that we’ll talk about today.
First Things First: What’s Your Goal?
Seems simple, but something a lot of people screw up. Because truth is, many of us have the same general goal with a lot of little variations that really matter. This is the reason so many different styles of eating are popular.
Are you trying to be the healthiest guy on the planet and live till you’re 120? Or do you just wanna have a six pack while still enjoying a burger and beer every now and then? Somewhere in-between?
One thing I hate is when people start spitting game about “this” or “that” being the universally “best” way to do nutrition.
It’s the paleo addict saying if you eat any other way you’re gonna be riddled with disease and die at 55 of a heart attack.
It’s the “flexible dieter” telling you that you should go ahead and eat Lucky Charms every day because “depriving” yourself of foods you love is a travesty.
But here’s the truth: there’s no one “best” way to do nutrition. So my goal today isn’t to tell you exactly what foods to eat (or avoid), or to nudge you into pledging your allegiance to a certain style of eating.
What I’m going to outline today are the systems that MUST be a part of any style of eating in order to build muscle, lose fat, and feel great. Think of these things as the framework that holds everything else together.
With these in place, you WILL get results (and you may just need to make some tweaks here and there over time).
Without these in place, nothing else you do will be as effective.
Cool? Let’s get started.
Big Rock #1: Maintain a Caloric Deficit
99% of the guys reading this are going to need to lose some fat in order to be lean enough to see abs and have good muscle definition.
Something I’ve learned over the past few years is that alotta guys at the gym who are convinced that adding more muscle is the key to unlocking the physique they want, the truth is, dropping 10 pounds of fat would have a lot more impact.
I learned this the hard way after bulking up to 190 and wondering why I looked “big” in clothes, but “soft” when I took my shirt off. If you can’t see at least an outline of abs at rest, the #1 way to improve the visual impact of your body is by dropping some fat.
I’m not saying that you should stop worrying about building muscle, I’m just saying that nutritionally, your focus should be fat loss (leave the muscle-building for your workouts).
(Hint: Still not sure if you need to lose fat? Do this: multiply your height, in inches, by .45. If your current waist circumference is more than an inch above the number you got, then you need to lose some fat).
When it comes to fat loss, you HAVE to be in a caloric deficit. That’s the first law, and there’s no way around it. All the other stuff you do (types of foods you eat, macronutrient split, etc.) matter, but unless you’re in a deficit, you aren’t going to lose fat.
So the first thing you need to do is figure out your maintenance calories (the amount of calories your body needs to maintain your current weight), and then create a slight deficit.
There are all kinds of fancy formulas out there, but honestly, I’ve found bodyweight in pounds x 12 to be as good of starting point as anything. Knock 250 calories per day off that number and if your waist circumference and/or weight hasn’t decreased in 1-2 weeks, decrease by 250 calories per day again.
As an example, here’s what this would look like for a 180-pound guy:
180 x 12 = 2,160 (rough “maintenance” calculation)
2,160 – 250 = 1,910 (daily caloric target for ½ pound of fat loss per week)
Measure waist circumference each day in the morning, and if the average hasn’t decreased after 1-2 weeks, adjust as necessary…
- Decreased? Keep rolling with the plan.
- Stayed the same/increased? Subtract 250 off your daily caloric target and repeat.
How should you achieve a caloric deficit? That’s up to you. For clients that have good “nutritional intuition” and already have a good idea of portion sizes and have some good habits, I have done this without counting/tracking calories.
For others who are relatively new to proper nutrition or don’t hold good awareness of what they eat, counting calories is a must.
Both ways work, depending on the individual. If you’re still not sure which would be best for you, hire me, and I’ll help you figure it out (yes, that’s a shameless plug for my Coaching Program).
Bottom line: To lose fat, you HAVE to maintain a caloric deficit. Take care of that first and fill in the details later.
Big Rock #2: Eat Enough Protein
There are two reasons why you need to prioritize protein:
- Protein is the most satiating food you can eat, meaning it helps you feel fuller, longer. Obviously this is important when being in a caloric deficit and trying to lose weight, because no one wants to walk around feeling hungry all the time.
- In order to maintain (or even build) muscle, your body has to have enough protein.
Some people say you can’t build muscle while in a caloric deficit. I disagree because I’ve seen it done. I’ve had clients lose up to 20 pounds of fat while gaining an inch on their arms and shoulders and getting stronger in all of their lifts.
But the only way that’s gonna happen is if you’re eating enough protein. How much is enough? Less than you think, probably.
I’ve heard recommendations of up to 2-3 grams per pound of body weight in the bodybuilding world. But unless you want to make eating protein a part-time job, that’s gonna be a tough target to hit.
Plus, eating that much protein is unnecessary. Research has shown that 0.8 grams per pound is enough to maintain and build muscle. So your goal is to get 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
Fill in most of the rest of your calories/food with high-quality fats and carbs and you’ll be good to go. Speaking of which…
Big Rock #3: Eat Mostly Whole, Unprocessed Nutritious Foods
Base most of your meals around whole, minimally processed, nutritious foods. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat ice cream or have a beer now and then, but roughly 80% of what you eat should fall into the “whole, minimally processed” category.
Why would you do this when you technically “could” eat junk and still lose fat and build muscle as long as you’re in a deficit and getting enough protein? Because no one wants to walk around feeling bloated, gassy, and lethargic all day.
I like ice cream and Doritos as much as the next guy, but not enough to feel like crap on any kind of consistent basis in order to eat them.
I promise you will look, feel, and perform better if you follow the 80% rule. Your workouts will be better, your gut will be less “grumbly”, and you’ll feel more energetic and willing to get after it each day.
And overtime, those things will add up to contribute significantly to consistent adherence to the Big Rocks outlined above.
(Bonus Big Rock): Consistency
Anyone can eat “good” for a day or two. Heck, if you’re really “motivated”, maybe you can be on point for a few weeks. But the name of the game is long term, consistent adherence.
That’s why this article is so important: because consistent adherence is one of the most difficult things in the world.
And that’s why it’s so important to identify the short list of essentials (the Big Rocks we’ve outlined above). You have to be able to execute what’s most important without getting overwhelmed.
So consistency is key.
That’s why I’m leaving room for you to decide the specifics of what you eat overall.
That’s why I’m telling you to go ahead and indulge every now and then by following the”80% whole and unprocessed” rule.
And that’s why I’m telling you to focus relentlessly on the 3 Big Rocks outlined above and leave some room for “play” with the details.
“Good” nutrition is about doing just a few (big) things consistently. Want to get leaner, build muscle, and feel great? These three things are most important:
- Maintain a caloric deficit
- Eat enough protein (0.8 -1 gram per pound of body weight)
- Choose mostly whole, minimally processed foods (and “indulge” 10-20% of the time).
Bodybuilding nutrition* is often made much more complicated than this. And sure, there’s more to the story, and at some point, you’ll probably have to look into more details.
*When I say “bodybuilding nutrition” here, I’m not talking about the competitive type. I’m just referring to normal guys whose primary goal is to build muscle, gain strength, and get lean.
But 1, 2, or 10 years from now, you’re progress will largely be determined by how consistently you did the 3 Big Rocks of nutrition that we talked about today.
So go ahead and add to it, but make sure you’re first mastering the Big Rocks.