A successful diet plan needs to abide by the same tenets that govern any other goal: structure and regimentation.
If you wanted to be more productive, you would etch out a designated amount of time in your day to commit to doing work. If you just went about your day without a plan, haphazardly doing work here and there, chances are you wouldn’t get much done.
Dieting is no different.
If you want to get the best results from your fat loss diet, you’ll be best served by following a structured and regimented plan.
Too much randomness and variability will mess with your diet and fat loss goals. Too much variability will set you up for dieting failure. Things like:
– Not really knowing the macros and calories on a certain food item, or
– Not having an idea of what you’re going to be eating, or constantly eating out
– And, yes, eating hyper-palatable, trigger foods, that cause you to overeat.
In fact, studies have found that too much variety can increase food intake.
People in the “online fitness world” get their digital panties in a twist if, god forbid, someone comes along and mentions that, oh I don’t know, you should probably be disciplined during your diet and maybe, possibly, being too flexible can make things harder.
When I say ‘reduce variability’, this isn’t me advocating eating nothing but dry chicken breast with broccoli several times a day, or follow some restrictive eating plan. No. What reducing variability means is minimising the risk of you slipping up on your diet.
Two examples of this:
- Trigger Foods: If you have foods that you know will cause you to overeat, don’t have them in your house. The more you keep these food items in your house the more likely you are to overeat on them and before you know it, one Oreo cookie becomes a pack, becomes two, becomes waking up on the couch the next day not knowing wtf happened.
- Lack of planning: People are most likely to overeat at night, after a hard day of work. If you come home and have nothing pre-cooked, your brain isn’t going to make the rational decision of ‘cook a healthy dinner because you have fat loss goals’. No. This is what it’s more likely to do: ‘look. I want you to have abs too. But, the Ben & Jerry’s we stashed away in the freezer is so much easier to eat right now than cooking something from scratch. Besides, we can always start again tomorrow.’
Reducing variability is having a plan and being prepared.
Structure and regimentation simply means that 90% of the time you follow a plan that you’ve created -from the number of meals, the foods you eat and the other 10% you can relax a little with your eating.
Creating Your Own Structured and Regimented Diet Plan
There are six key components to a successful diet plan.
I’m going to explain what these are below with examples when needed, but some of these will require you do some experimenting to find what best suits your personality and lifestyle.
While I’ve numbered these, they’re all of an equal importance.
This is the type of diet you’re choosing to follow. Whether it be high carb, low-fat or low-carb, high-fat, vegan/vegetarian, Paleo, whatever – I’m not gonna sit here and judge. Do you, homie.
When selecting a diet, consider these things:
- Taste preference –It should accommodate foods that you enjoy eating
- Takes into consideration any health limitations, allergies etc.
- Something you can adhere to for the long term
One more thing before moving on: there are ongoing debates about what is and isn’t ‘’optimal’’.
Understand: Optimal is subjective. What may be optimal for you may not be optimal for another, and optimal gets trumped by adherence. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve spoken about variability and planning earlier, and this is where planning out your meals in advance comes in.
Even though a flexible approach should be taken when constructing the meal plan, meaning, fitting in foods you enjoy – having something to adhere to and follow will enable you to better stick to your diet.
Preparing in advance will also ensure that you are meeting your micronutrient requirements [vitamins and minerals] by consuming adequate amounts of nutrient-rich foods, like vegetables and fruits, that you may not be able to get if you’re constantly on the go and eating out.
Meal planning will also teach you about foods – macronutrients and micronutrients – how your body responds to certain foods and enforces the creation of good habits: by consciously thinking about the foods you’re going to consume and why, results in choosing foods that are good for you, both from a health and performance perspective.
We now know that eating six small meals is comparatively no different than eating 2-3 larger meals and holds no ‘metabolic advantage’ as far as fat loss goes.
Ultimately, how many meals you choose to eat will come down to what best suits you and your lifestyle.
If you have a large appetite, or you’re currently dieting and calories are low you’ll be best served with a lower meal frequency [2-3 meals]. This will allow you to eat larger meals in a single sitting resulting in better satiety and feelings of fullness; conversely, if you struggle to eat large amounts of food in a single sitting, or are currently in a muscle gaining phase which may require you to eat more calories, then spreading out your calorie intake into more meals [4-6 meals] will help solve this problem.
There’s also one more important, yet oft-forgotten, factor here: Ghrelin.
Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, controls when you get hungry. Fortunately, ghrelin can also be ‘trained’.
Training yourself to eat at set times will keep Ghrelin consistent and will create consistent hunger patterns – you’ll get hungry at similar times in the day – this will reduce the risk of falling off plan.
Nutrient & Meal Timing
Meal and nutrient timing are terms used to describe when you eat your meals [meal timing] and the specific macro makeup of those meals [nutrient timing].
While meal and nutrient timing aren’t as big a factor as some people make it out to be – no, you won’t lose your gains if you don’t slam back a protein shake the second after finishing your last set, and neither will you go catabolic and crash your metabolism if you skip breakfast – there are some instances when meal and nutrient timing do become important.
The first is to do with Ghrelin as mentioned previously. The more consistent you can become with your meal timing, the less variability in when you get hungry.
A second factor is that carbs, for some, can trigger hunger and cravings. If this happens to you, then skip carbs at your first meal and save them for around the workout. This will ensure that you can go through your morning without experiencing cravings.
Finally, when carbs are low, like during a dieting phase, keeping the majority of carbs around your workout window – pre and post workout – will help with performance in the gym and recovery after.
A few examples of how to set up your day
Train in the afternoon/evening?
Breakfast / First Meal – Protein, fats and veggies
Lunch / Second Meal [Preworkout meal] – Carbs/Protein/Fats
Dinner / Third Meal [Postworkout meal] – Carbs / Protein
Train in the Morning?
- Option 1 – Fasted training
*feel free to have a protein shake or BCAA’s post workout
Breakfast / First Meal [Post workout meal] – Carbs, Protein and veggies
Lunch / Second Meal – Carbs/Protein/Fats
Dinner / Third Meal – Protein, fats and veggies.
- Option 2 – No Carb Pre workout
Breakfast / First Meal [Pre workout meal] – Protein + Fats
Snack – [Post workout meal] – Protein [could simply be a protein shake, or BCAA’s]
Lunch / Second Meal – Carbs/Protein/Fats
Dinner / Third Meal – Carbs/Protein
- Option 3 – Carbs Pre workout
Breakfast / First Meal [Pre workout meal] – Carbs + Protein
*optional snack – [Post workout meal] – Protein [could simply be a protein shake, or BCAA’s]
Lunch / Second Meal – Protein + Fats and veggies
Dinner / Third Meal – Carbs + Protein
The biggest factor in whether you diet successfully or not is how well you deal with hunger.
And yes, while hunger is an inevitable part of the dieting process, the foods you choose to include [and omit] in your diet can make things easier, or harder.
If you’re dieting, calorie intake will be low and you’ll be better off choosing foods that are low in energy density and high in nutrient density.
Foods like: fruits [berries are excellent during a low-calorie phase], potatoes, steaks, fish, chicken, beans, lentils, and vegetables, are all great choices.
Energy-dense foods like cereal, chocolate bars etc. are less filling and thus, less satiating [save these for your high-calorie days – see next section].
This is why you can eat a chocolate bar and be hungry again ten minutes later while a [calorically] comparable meal filled with protein, carbohydrates and veggies will keep you fuller for longer.
For the most part, aim to have some staple foods [and meals] that you eat regularly. This makes things simple and prevents paralysis by analysis seeping in.
The differentiating factor here is that you choose what you want to eat and what you don’t want to eat.
Are there foods that you ‘must have’ in your diet, otherwise it’s a no-go? Not to fret, go ahead and include them in your diet*
*As long as this food isn’t a trigger food that will cause you to overeat. I’m sorry but we’re all grownups here. If you can’t give up a food even though you know it triggers you to overeat, then don’t diet. Simple.
Don’t like certain foods? No problem, don’t eat them.
Higher Calorie days
While this topic is the cause for much, needless, debate and contention amongst my peers – I am an advocate of higher calorie days and cheat meals.
People use to believe that one day of higher calorie eating during a fat loss phase would help increase fat loss by way of boosting metabolism and upregulating hormones that may have downregulated during a deficit, but, alas! This has turned out to,in fact, not be true.
As I discussed in the PHASE Diet: you need at least 3-4 days of higher calorie eating [around maintenance] for a lot of the physiological and hormonal down regulations to pick back up.
With that said, however, higher calorie days are an integral part of a successful diet setup because, and people forget this:
The psychology of dieting is far more important than the physiology of dieting.
And the people who are successful with their dieting endeavours tend to be those who can handle the psychological mindfuck that dieting brings with it.
So while one day of higher calorie eating won’t do much to upregulate hormones that have been suppressed from an extended dieting period, they give the person much needed mental reprieve from a week of low calories and can help with adherence in the long run.
Knowing that you have a higher calorie day at the end of the week, enables you to be a lot more disciplined and stick to the deficit.
While I do intend to write about cheat meals/days and refeeds in another post, I’ll give some quick definitions here and guidelines on how I use higher calorie days.
- Refeeds: while a refeed can be anytime you overfeed during a dieting phase for a day or two, when I refer to refeeds, I’m referring to the common definition of one day of eating at a calorie maintenance, with the bulk of the calories coming from a higher carb, lower fat intake
- Cheat Meals are one or two ‘free’ meals per week where you can eat whatever you like for one meal on top of your daily dieting intake. Note I said one meal. Not the one meal plus everything else in your kitchen.
- Cheat days are, well, basically a food orgy. A day of hedonism where there are no rules – eat yourself silly and then pass out from the food coma. I’m not a fan of cheat days as they can be a slippery slope for most. While I do use ‘strategic’ spikes, even these have guidelines.
When it comes to cheat days, like Mufasa told Simba: we mustn’t ever go there. So stick to either a refeed or cheat meal.
Here’s how I implement higher calorie days:
You have two options.
– The Track
– The Non-track
As the name implies, you track calorie intake.
Pick one day during the weekend where you bump calories up to maintenance intake [body weight x 14] or a slight surplus [bodyweight x 15-16]
So, if you weigh 170 lbs, this means a calorie intake between 2300 – 2600 cals.
The benefit of the track is that you don’t need to worry about macros. You can eat what you like as long as you stay within your daily calorie allotment. Though I’d still encourage the focus of intake to be predominantly from carbs.
The non-track is not tracking calorie intake.
Don’t worry too much about tracking, just make sure that the foods you’re eating are coming mainly from carb-based foods while keeping fat intake low.
The non-track gives you less freedom on what to eat but gives you a mental break to not track for one day.
Try both and see what one you prefer.
The frequency of higher calorie days will depend on your levels of leanness.
Putting The Diet Plan Together
To give you an example of how these six keys look in the real world, this is what a typical week looks like for me:
From Monday to Friday:
I eat three meals a day [two whole food meals, and one pre-workout ‘snack’]. I, personally, enjoy and follow a low carb, higher fat diet, so the two whole food meals usually consist of vegetables and a fatty protein source [steak, eggs] or a leaner protein source topped off with a healthy fat source like olive oil, nuts etc.
I have three to four ”go-to” meals that I rotate weekly. I buy in bulk [saving money] and don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat – it’s already made, or, planned to be made and I simply eat.
Examples of some of my go-to meals*:
*These examples are just to give you an idea.
- Sirloin Steak fried in butter with vegetables and berries
- 3-4 Whole egg omelette with veggies fried in olive oil with 1/2 of a large avocado
- Chicken Thighs with veggies / salad topped off with olive oil
- Chicken breast, veggies or Salad with olive oil
- Sirloin Steak fried in butter with vegetables
- Chicken Thighs with veggies / salad topped off with Olive oil
- Grilled salmon with veggies
The pre-workout snack is usually something sugary – like a pack of Haribo or a chocolate bar with some form of caffeine [either a coffee or energy drink].
I fully understand to some of you that this may come across as ‘restrictive’, that’s fine. The thing is, and there isn’t any way to say this without sounding like a pretentious dick: I don’t care much for food.
Don’t get me wrong. I love going out with friends and family for meals and appreciate good food [and company]; I just don’t sit around thinking about food all day or spend five hours intricately planning what I’m going to eat.
And I assure you, if you consciously thought about what you eat day to day, you’ll realise it’s more or less the same foods during the week with a bit more variety on weekends.
Go ahead, consciously think about it. I’ll wait.
Saturday & Sunday
On Saturday’s, I have a higher calorie day.
Sundays I employ a 24-hour fast day. This helps balance out weekly calorie intake and provides the health benefits too.
Reducing the time I spend thinking about my diet increases my chances of succeeding with it.
This structure and regimentation allows me to not only maintain a low level of body fat year around but simplifies my life. I don’t have to over-complicate things or spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what to eat.
I have a plan, I follow the plan and the results follow.
I fully understand that flexibility is the cool kid on the block, and hey, flexibility is awesome. But, flexibility on its own is like the hyperactive kid running rampant who’s only focus is to enjoy the shit out of life. You need discipline to bring some order and semblance to flexibility for you to be successful with your dieting and fat loss goals.
Use these keys to set up your own diet so that you’re prepared for successful fat loss.
1. I highly recommend you go read this article I wrote if you want to learn more about food satiety and why it’s important to focus on whole, nutrient-rich foods during a diet and why too flexible of an approach may cause you more harm than good.
2. To get into the details of the why’s, how’s and what’s of the higher calorie days, fast days and my philosophies to dieting and nutrition in general, is far outside the scope of this article. I’ll write about all of that in detail in another article if you want me to [so hit me up and let me know].
3. The inclusion of a midweek spike meal is something I first heard from Amir Siddiqui.