Introduction to diet

Diet is probably the most important single factor in your health, body composition and overall appearance.

Food determines how big you are. If you consume more calories than you expend, you will get bigger. If you consume fewer calories than you expend, you will get smaller. If you meet your maintenance needs, you will stay the same. Regardless of your metabolism, body composition, genetics, or whatever, your body must obey the laws of physics and biological imperatives. Now, your calorie needs can change over time. But in the end, it really is calories in and calories out. Everything else is just fiddling around the edges of this basic fact.

You can’t get big if you don’t eat big. That goes for muscle, fat, whatever. You can lift huge weights 10,000 times a day, and if you don’t eat more calories than you expend, you won’t gain a milligram of mass. Conversely, if you burn 10,000 calories a day and eat 11,000 calories a day you will gain weight. Exercise and food selection plays a big role in what that extra weight becomes (fat or muscle), but the weight comes from food.

With that out of the way, what should you eat?

General dietary advice

Before going into the nitty-gritty of calorie counting and so forth, you can improve your health a great deal by changing the staples of your diet and your patterns of eating. This sounds like a big deal, but is actually pretty simple and relatively painless. I’m not going to tell you to eat tree bark and fungus, for instance. That kind of extremist dieting is for morons.

First, the obvious stuff: fast food and soda. Cut it out.

Fast food is almost always extremely unhealthy, high in saturated fat and trans fat, very calorie-dense, and should thus be avoided by everyone. The occasional burger is harmless in the grand scheme of things, but if fast food is a staple of your diet, cut it out.

Soda is the other thing that should be massively reduced by almost everyone. Soda is extremely calorie-dense, has no nutritional value, and for various reasons, you shouldn’t be dumping massive amounts of simple sugars into your system. There is debate over if diet soda is neutral or still bad for you; my suggestion is to limit it, too. Drink water instead, with the occasional coffee or tea for variety. After a few months of this, your soda cravings will slowly dissipate. 

For those with a sweet tooth, all kinds of sweets are calorie monsters. But the worst of the worst may be ice cream, especially premium ice creams - a pint might give you a few days worth of saturated fat and half the calories you should be taking in. You don’t need to never eat something sweet again - that’s ludicrous. Just eat it rarely and in smaller amounts.

Finally, be aware that many “frappuchino” coffee beverages are made almost entirely of dairy fat and syrup, and can have absurd amounts of calories. Brewed tea and coffee are almost calorie-free, and a packet of sugar only adds about 20 calories, but some of these blended “coffee” things have on the order of 400 calories.

Many people make the first steps towards weight loss just by cutting out soda and dropping the Big Mac content of their diet. Aside from being made of unhealthy ingredients, fast food and soda are so awful because they make it easy to ingest immense calories without being especially aware that you’re doing it. I’m not telling you that you need to abandon everything you like forever. You just can’t have obviously unhealthy foods be a main component of your diet. Having a reasonably-sized portion of something “unhealthy” that you really like 1-2 times a week is not a problem if the rest of your diet is in order. But for too many people, unhealthy foods aretheir diet.

Macronutrients and more

Macronutrients are just things like carbohydrates, fats and proteins. All are necessary, and none are evil per se. To summarize:

Carbohydrates (“carbs”). Despite what you may have heard, these are not evil. They are a necessary source of energy for your body. The problem is that people over-consume certain sources of carbohydrates, most notably simple sugars from soda and candy, and starches from white bread. If you have to cut down on one macronutrient, cut down on carbohydrates. People in Western cultures consume far too many carbohydrates on average.

Proteins. These are necessary for your body to maintain its muscles, repair damage to them, and generally hold itself together. Most people get enough protein, though an intense exercise program may call for eating more for optimal results. If you cannot manage to take enough protein into your diet, protein powder may be the key. TrueProtein sells among the cheapest and also highest quality protein powders (you can also use the code LMR104 when checking out for an extra 5-10% off). Optimum Nutrition is another well-recommended powder.

Fats. Fats are not evil, either. Eating dietary fat does not mean that body fat will instantly appear on your gut or ass; your body doesn’t work that way. Fats perform a variety of necessary functions. The problem is that people over-consume saturated fats and trans fats, which raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and under-consume healthy fats like monounsaturated fats (found in high concentrations in olive oil and canola oil) and Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, flax seed oil and other sources). Fats also have more calories ounce-for-ounce than carbohydrates and proteins, making very high fat foods astoundingly calorie-dense.

There is some disagreement over what the ideal ratio of carbohydrate to fats to protein in a person’s diet should be. In fact, one recent study is now showing that this ratio matters much less than previously thought. For most people, something in the neighborhood of 40% carbohydrate calories/30% protein calories/30% fat calories would be about the right ballpark, with approximately 1/3 of your fat calories coming from each type of fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated). The general population skews towards lower protein, and more carbohydrates and fat, and more importantly tend to get their carbs and proteins from unhealthy sources.

Alcohol. Technically a macronutrient, though most people don’t think of it that way. Alcohol itself has calories, and some alcoholic drinks are very calorie-dense due to their sugar content. If there’s anything like a useless source of calories, alcohol is it. Alcohol consumption has been consistently shown to result in sustained, significant decreases in testosterone and growth hormone levels. In addition, it also directly inhibits how the body processes proteins. If you’re trying to build muscle, it is best to cut down on alcohol consumption.

Cholesterol: I’m including this here as a subset of fats, though technically it isn’t a macronutrient. Cholesterol in food does not directly translate in into high blood cholesterol for most people. For those with high cholesterol, specifically high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, focus on cutting saturated and trans fats, which contribute to cholesterol production in the liver.

Dietary fiber: This is a subset of carbohydrates, though people don’t usually think of fiber that way. Dietary fiber has many health benefits, and almost everyone should eat more of it.

Water: Drink more water. Water regulates virtually every bodily process in some way. Drinking more water is a simple, virtually cost-free thing you can do to improve your overall health. Also, if you drink water, you aren’t drinking calories, and will feel fuller. Finally, drinking plenty of water is essential to getting the most out of your workouts in a safe manner. The recommended amount differs from person to person (If you’ve heard anything about 8 glasses a day, it’s bunk), but there’s no danger in drinking more.

Vitamins & minerals

Micronutrients are things your body needs in small quantities, like vitamins and minerals. In general, most people do not need to heavily supplement these, provided that their diet is optimal. However, few people have an optimal diet. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence that, in some cases, supplementation can provide concrete health benefits.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is a reasonable baseline for most vitamins and minerals, but keep in mind that it is a minimum value for preventing nutrient deficiency, not the optimal amount for the best possible health or performance, and does not take into account the most up-to-date research. As a result, taking a multivitamin supplement that gives you a flat 100% RDA dose is not necessarily the best way to go, but it is a reasonable and conservative way to cover any deficiencies in your diet.

Keep in mind that men will want a multivitamin without iron, while women will want one with iron. In fact, 11% of women between the ages of 20 to 49 have an iron deficiency.

Since writing this guide, several people have asked me about sodium. Sodium is generally something that most don’t need to be concerned about. Your body needs a small amount of sodium to function. However, an excess of sodium can cause major heart problems down the line if your kidney can’t filter it fast enough. Stick to the dietary guideline of no more than 2300mg a day of sodium (see this article for more information).

One supplement that is extremely beneficial and backed up by a ton of scientific evidence is Omega-3 fatty acids, most commonly supplemented through fish oil. If there is one supplement that everyone should take, this is it. Don’t focus on total mg of fish oil; instead, take enough fish oil to get a total of approximately 720mg of EPA and 480mg of DHA a day.

But what if you want to go beyond that and try to get closer to “optimum” nutrition through supplements? Going deep into this subject is beyond the scope of this guide, but there are a few basic things you should keep in mind:

  1. The tolerable upper level (UL) is a reasonable place to start when trying to determine the maximum amount of a vitamin you should take. That doesn’t mean that you should take the UL value of every vitamin, just that if you stay below the UL, you aren’t in risky territory in terms of overdose. Note that the UL is often much higher than the RDA.

  2. Put some thought into what you’re taking, and why you’re taking it. Look for scientific studies supporting the value of taking more than the RDA of a given vitamin or mineral. And don’t just fixate on one study; look for a consensus among credible sources.

  3. Remember, they’re called supplements for a reason. Researching and buying supplements is not something for beginners to concentrate on. Focus on getting your diet in order first.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying you need to do any of this to be healthy or get into shape, though an Omega-3 supplement is highly recommended unless you eat fish 24/7. Other supplements are worth looking into, but are not essential by any stretch of the imagination.

Finally, if you see a supplement being promoted that you’re not sure about, use the Snake Oil chart for reference. It charts popular supplements by the amount of scientific evidence backing them. The stuff you should be taking is at the very top.

Specific kinds of things you should eat

Note that the list below does not account for condiments and toppings; it just lists good food items. For instance, turkey breast is very good for you. Turkey breast covered in heavy cream sauce or deep fried in lard is not. Use your brain here.

Your dietary staples should include:

  • Lean animal protein sources, including but not limited to:
    • Most turkey and chicken in general, especially if it is skinless. Turkey and chicken breasts especially.
    • Ground turkey, chicken, beef or pork.
    • Virtually all forms of fish, even the fattier fishes are very good for you. Tuna, while also good, should be eaten sparingly if you’re concerned about mercury consumption.
    • More exotic-type meats, if you can find them: buffalo, ostrich, lamb, elk, venison, alligator, etc.
    • Whole eggs. The unhealthiness of whole eggs is a myth; contrary to past assumptions, they have no impact on heart disease at all. The main reason for this is that cholesterol in food does not impact the actual cholesterol level in your blood; almost all your cholesterol is made in you liver, based mainly on your saturated fat and trans fat consumption.
  • Whole grains, including but not limited to:
    • Whole wheat bread, bagels, rolls, etc.
    • Whole wheat pasta
    • Brown rice
    • Oatmeal
    • Whole grain breakfast cereals and muesli
  • Virtually all fruits and vegetables, including beans and dry-roasted nuts.
  • Healthy fats like olive oil (for sauces, dressings & low-temperature cooking) and canola oil (for high-temperature cooking), and Omega-3 rich fish oil.
  • Low fat dairy products like skim milk, low fat/nonfat yogurt and reduced fat cheeses. Just be aware that some “reduced fat” cheeses are still relatively high in saturated fat.

Notes for vegetarians

Not eating meat or animal products does not guarantee that you are eating a good diet. Aside from omitting animal products, the same basic advice applies to you as to everyone else: eat a variety of foods, eat whole grains, limit your saturated fat and trans fat intake and stick to healthy oils. However, vegetarians have some other issues to consider.

Vitamin B12. This is a nutrient that vegetarian diets can be deficient in, because it is a bacterial product that is not very prevalent in vegetable matter. You will probably want to take a supplement containing B12 or soy milk fortified in B12. Lack of B12 can cause a form of anemia.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. These are essential fatty acids that you have to make a point to get into your diet. Soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil are good sources of other essential fatty acids, but not DHA. Your best bet is probably to take a vegetarian Omega-3 supplement that specifically includes DHA as a primary ingredient. Non-vegetarians normally get a passable (though sub-optimal) amount of essential fatty acids from eggs, fish and shellfish.

Calcium. It can be more difficult to obtain enough calcium if you do not consume dairy products. Leafy green vegetables (not lame iceberg lettuce, I mean the dark green stuff), soy, almonds, oats, most beans and sesame seeds can be good alternate sources of calcium. You may want to consider a supplement containing calcium. Non-vegetarians usually get enough calcium; it is just from dairy sources high in saturated fat.

Iron. Iron is available in many plant products like whole grains, nuts and green leafy vegetables. However, iron is often not as easily absorbed from these sources as it is from sources like red meat. The good news is that adequate consumption of vitamin C, which vegetarians can easily get plenty of, greatly aids in the absorption of iron. Non-vegetarians usually get enough iron from meat, but it is usually from meats high in saturated fat.

A good mix of foods and a vegetarian multivitamin can essentially negate most of the presumed negatives of even the strictest vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism doesn’t relegate you to being a scrawny noodle; there are even vegan bodybuilders. You have some additional things to consider nutritionally, but you will also tend to avoid pitfalls of non-vegetarian diets, most notably dangerously high saturated fat consumption. Note that almost all supplements are now available in vegetarian versions.

More information on vegetarian diet needs can be found at the Vegetarian Resource Group.

Healthier cooking methods

The methods below are, barring any other dumb additions, generally healthy ways of cooking because they add little or no unhealthy fats.

  • If it is a vegetable, eating it raw
  • Steaming (especially) or boiling
  • Baking, broiling, roasting without added fat
  • Smoking and grilling
  • Stir frying with vegetable oil

The best advice I can give is to learn how to cook so you can control your diet better. It is actually very easy to do, and is guaranteed to impress potential mates. Any number of beginner-oriented cook books can get you started. It is hard to not improve your diet just by cooking your own food; restaurant food is generally not much better than fast food, and they give you way too much of it.

Counting calories

Happily, I can skip most of the explaining, and just refer you to FitDay or The Daily Plate, handy calorie counting sites that do most of the thinking for you.

Some important pointers:

Almost everyone over-estimates the calories they burn. Your early workouts feel really hard, but you probably aren’t actually exerting yourself that much; your body is just over-reacting to your sudden desire to not be a lazy slug. Also, if you don’t time yourself, 10 minutes can easily feel like 30 for your first few workouts. Use a watch to time your workouts, or if you have a smartphone, there are a variety of applications available. I’ve heard good things about RunKeeper.

Almost everyone under-estimates the calories they eat. This is because the actual servings people eat do not correspond to the generic serving sizes on nutrition labels or calorie counting sites. For instance, you might eat an 8oz steak, but the standard serving size is typically something like 3 oz. This goes for almost everything, so try to get a handle on the real quantities you are consuming.

Fitday tends to grossly over-estimate lifestyle calories burned. For a realistic result, you should choose “sedentary” as your activity level. Even with sedentary checked, it’s best to ignore FitDay in this department altogether. Instead, use the Basal Metabolic Rate calculator.

Now that you know how to count your calories, how do you figure out how many calories you need to meet your goals? The best tool I’ve found for this is the Fat Loss Calculator from Scooby’s Workshop. Fill in your data there, and then look at the “Daily calories to maintain weight (TDEE)” box. Use that number to set your goal. If you’d like to lose one pound (~3500 calories) per week, subtract 500 calories from that number. If I need to eat 3000 calories a day to maintain my weight, I will lose one pound a week eating 2500 calories a day. Conversely, I will gain one pound a week eating 3500 calories a day.

If you follow the numbers exactly, there’s no way to fail. That’s the beauty of thermodynamics!

How often should I eat?

It doesn’t matter. Although many will claim that you can speed up your metabolism by eating more meals a day, a review of pertinent studies reveals that this is not true (Source: 12). Common sense dictates that three meals a day should be fine. At the other end of the scale, if you are trying to force yourself to eat more so you can gain weight (e.g. for bodybuilding), you will probably need to eat more big meals per day just to get enough calories into your body.

Starvation is bad, OK? You’ll just get fat again, dammit! Also, sick. And look like crap.

Weight loss is largely a matter of reducing calories and increasing activity. So if 500 fewer calories a day than you need to maintain is good, 2000 less is better, right? Not really. Because below a certain threshold, your body thinks you are one of those starving refugees on TV, and does a bunch of things that hurt your long-term weight loss.

Read that again: starving is a bad way to lose weight.

Why this is so:

  • Your metabolism slows down. Your body will burn fewer calories to maintain itself, and you will feel awful. This is bad for weight loss because as soon as you quit starving yourself, you’ll gain weight fast because your metabolism has bottomed out.
  • You will tend to lose muscle more than fat. Your body will naturally try to conserve fat and cannibalize muscle if it thinks it is outright starving. This is bad because your real goal is FAT loss, not weight loss. This is how you have people who lose 100 pounds and reach their “ideal” weight, but still look amazingly flabby. Also, losing muscle slows your metabolism down even further, amplifying the giant horrible rebound effect once you quit starving yourself.
  • Your life will be a living hell. You’ll eventually feel horrible, the diet will fail, and you’ll binge eat and regain everything you lost, plus interest.

You want to run a clear-cut, but tolerable calorie deficit to sustain weight loss over the long term. Very obese people may be put on very low calorie diets by their doctor, but these are medically supervised and designed for people who need to lose weight now or suffer severe health problems. Be safe and stick to 500 fewer calories a day than you burn, which is the equivalent of one pound lost per week.

More info on bad dieting:

Female nutrition

Women’s nutrition is about 99% the same as men’s. Some exceptions to note:

  • It goes without saying that you need fewer calories than the typical man of your height.
  • Make sure you are getting enough iron. Iron deficiency anemia is very common in young women. Be aware that a woman’s RDA for iron is 50% higher than that for men (15mg vs 10mg), and USRDA numbers should generally be considered bare-minimums to prevent malnutrition, not ideal targets for optimum performance.
  • It is generally accepted that women need more calcium and vitamin D, because they are more prone to osteoporosis.
  • Folic acid is a highly recommended supplement for pregnant women.