Establishing what you should and should not eat to be “healthy” is one of the most confusing topics under the sun! Even I get confused by all of the dietary protocols, conflicting opinions and latest research.
Thanks to all of the dieting mistakes I have made in the past (and Lord knows I’ve made many!!!), I’ve finally established an approach that promotes health (including mental health) and provides results 365 days a year.
Not only should a diet generates results, but it must also be:
- maintainable 365 days a year
- endurable (enjoyable and non-restrictive)
- causing no physiological, metabolic, endocrinological or psychological harm
- not all-consuming
Meal Plans: Good or Bad
From my own personal experience, I can tell you I FAILED MISERABLY following other people’s meal plans. It caused food obsession, hunger and left my taste buds bored. How do other people know what I am in the mood to eat from day to day? I don’t even know that myself!! I mean, sometimes I feel like bok choy, and other times, I feel like zucchini! Following meal plans also made me demonize all foods that were not on the plan, which further exacerbated my food obsession (orthorexia nervosa). Furthermore, it was a tremendous amount of work purchasing the food (most of the food was not available in my regular grocery store), and it was ridiculously time consuming cooking all the food. I’m sure you have heard of the term, “meal prep”. This is a ritual performed by people who eat 6 meals a day every 2-3 hours. Every Sunday, they spend 3-4 hours purchasing groceries and cooking an entire week’s worth of food to ensure they will have all 42 meals ready in tupperware. Doesn’t that sound appealing, eh? Eating 5 day old tilapia coated in a fishy gel layer from a tupperware container that you pulled out of a massive cooler you carried with you to work, the gym, the Christmas Party Dinner. Seriously. Really? I bet you stopped eating in restaurants too, didn’t you? Do you even remember what it is like to eat freshly made food? And how much did this meal plan cost you? From experience, I’ve paid the “experts” anything from $100 to $1500. Wow. It cost me thousands of dollars in meal plans over the years to “lose weight and “get healthy”. And guess what the end result was: extreme hunger, weight gain, loss of money and orthorexia nervosa.
Everyone wants a meal plan. And everyone want to sell you a meal plan. But BEWARE! Who are these self-proclaimed “experts”? Are they just emailing you a plan for which you pay? Is this a cookie-cutter plan they use for many of their clients? Or do they do a full history taking with you to establish your medical health, your schedule, your eating personality, your favourite foods, your ability to cook, your social/restaurant life, your physique goals, your bad habits, what dietary protocols have previously failed you, etc and then tailor the program to suit you? But the problem is that your “expert” will probably only offer one philosophy (the philosophy of their brand), and they will convince you it is PERFECT FOR YOU so they can make a buck off you. I strongly recommend you read my article called, “Think Critically” before you pay anyone for a training/nutrition plan.
Let me quote Margaret Mead: “It’s easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet”. She’s right. You don’t need a meal plan, because it won’t work in the long haul. What you do need is to understand how the food you ingest on a daily basis impacts your body. Once you understand that, then you will be able to use your brain to establish what to eat 365 days a year. So stop being a slave to “fad diets” and “expert meal plans”.
PLEASE STOP WRITING ME ASKING IF I’LL SEND YOU A MEAL PLAN because I won’t! I absolutely refuse to sell meal plans or workouts. In case you haven’t noticed, everything on my website (my own personal workouts and recipes that I use) are FREE! The only thing I want to sell to you is an ability to think critically…and that’s also FREE!
PLEASE STOP WRITING ME ASKING IF I’LL SEND YOU A COMPETITION DIET. I competed 8 times and sustained metabolic damage. Competing also damaged my mental health. I know firsthand just how TORMENTING it is to live with a post-show 20-pound weight gain that won’t go away despite following “the plan” prescribed by an “expert coach”. Why do you want to subject yourself to a time-sucking/all-consuming/hunger-inducing dietary & training protocol to generate “FAST RESULTS” for your upcoming competition, when these results will likely be ephemeral and will potentially cause you metabolic and psychological damage? For what? for 45 seconds on stage? And the odds of winning are next to none. Then you’ll get off stage, and before you know it, you resume your baseline calories and training and suddenly gain 20 pounds. So you looked great for 45 seconds one day of the year, at the expense of the other 364 days of the year? All I am going to say is THINK CRITICALLY before making decisions. If you follow my SANE approach, your metabolism will be humming along at top speed and you will look awesome 365 days a year. I used this approach to recover from my metabolic slowdown. It worked! The pounds came off, and they stay off! The ultimate irony is that I look better now than when I was competing. I think it’s quite comical that I could get on stage next week and look my best, and then chuckle to myself because I only train 20 minutes a day, I do not follow a meal plan, I eat a Quest Bar and a bag of Kale Chips a day, and I’m NEVER HUNGRY. Look at my picture! I look like this 365 days a year because I mastered the art of TAKING THE HELL OUT OF HEALTHY!
Keep reading to learn how to make your approach to food SANE!
How Many Calories? What about Macros?
This is one of those questions that does not have a cookie cutter answer. There are many factors that need to be considered, such as your activity level, gender, training regime, goals, insulin sensitivity, age, weight, height, metabolic health, body fat, etc. So please don’t write to me asking how many calories you should eat or what macro breakdown you should follow.
To get a rough idea of your daily calorie and macronutrient consumption (based on your goals: fat loss, maintenance, or lean gains), you can click on this calorie calculator. Remember, every one is different, and this is just a guide. I recommend you search the internet for other calorie calculators to see just how perplexing it is trying to find this magic number. You will have to experiment to establish what works for your body. Yes – You will have to be Nancy Drew and investigate how your body responds to X amount of calories. Then you adjust accordingly. The same is true for macros. Please read the “What to Eat” section of this article to learn how to approach your macros with ease.
Remember not to drop your calories below 1200 – as this is not conducive to health and it can cause your metabolism to slow down (which would stall fat loss and could even lead to weight gain!). And for the same reason, I do not recommend you remain in prolonged periods of caloric deficit (in other words, you need to take dieting breaks and gradually increase your calories to maintenance levels to reset your metabolism). This ensures your metabolism will continue revving full speed ahead – and having a healthy metabolism is key if you want to get and stay lean.
LOSE WEIGHT SLOWLY! Don’t risk metabolic damage. Between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins. Your metabolism is smarter than you are. It maintains your body in a state of homeostasis (so you can survive!). If you try to lose weight quickly by training dramatically more and eating dramatically less, your metabolism will slow down (to maintain homeostasis), which will halt your fat loss efforts. Then when you return to your baseline calories with your new slow metabolism, BAM – you gain a ton of weight!
- Lose Weight Slowly!
- Severely restricting your calories for fat loss is a BIG NO. So is doing 1 to 2 hours/day of low intensity steady state cardio. And definitely don’t combine these 2 tactics! It won’t work in the long haul because you cannot defy homeostasis. Homeostasis is a BITCH! In fact, it’s so much of a bitch that it will outsmart your ‘extreme caloric-deficit for fat loss strategy‘. How? By making your body hold onto and store fat. Why? To Keep you alive! Ironic, isn’t it? The very strategy you are using to lose fat can actually make you fatter! Read my Exercise Philosophy for more explanations.
- Rather, you need to make choices that boost your metabolism, such as:
- high intensity resistance training (short duration but very intense!)
- adequate caloric consumption (and avoid prolonged periods of caloric deficit …. meaning take breaks by gradually increasing your calories to maintenance levels). Always lose weight slowly. Between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins.
- and you must routinely change your training and dietary regime (ie. caloric intake, carb intake, food selection) to prevent your body from adapting. In other words, DO NOT do the exact same workout and eat the exact same foods every day. If you want a healthy metabolism, then keep your body guessing. If you are a creature of habit, you will stop getting results.
What to Eat?
If you understand these principles, then you will NEVER require a meal plan. Just think for yourself and let your taste buds be your guide.
Quickie Insulin Tutorial:
- Insulin = fat storage hormone
- Carbohydrates are broken down into sugar in your body. Sugar spikes your insulin. The more sugary the carbohydrate is (eg. White bread, pastas, sugar, white potatoes, cookies, licorice), the more your body will produce insulin. Insulin stores fat and prevents fat from being broken down into useable energy for the body. This is less than ideal when you are trying to lose weight!
If you want to lose fat and remain lean, then…
- Minimize sugar consumption. When I say sugar, I’m referring to refined, extrinsic sugars, not naturally occurring sugars within whole foods like fresh fruit and sweet potatoes. When you do consume a sugary treat, ensure you also have your recommended daily fiber intake. The fiber will counteract some of the sugar’s insulin-spiking impact. The problem with high sugar diets is that they are low in fiber. And let’s not ignore the glaringly obvious: excess sugar consumption is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, tooth decay and other obesity-related illnesses … AND it can cause nutrient deficiencies if sugar-laiden food is being consumed at every meal instead of “nutrient-dense clean food”.
- Always meet your recommended daily fiber intake, which is easy to do if you eat “clean food” because they typically contain a lot of fiber. Examples of “clean foods” are listed below. If you do this, then you will be able to have more freedom with your diet. A healthy balance is the key to a maintainable and endurable diet! So stop demonizing food, stop relying on restrictive meal plans (ie. meal 1, meal 2, etc) and use your brain when selecting your daily foods. This means you will need to keep track of your daily macro & micronutrients, fiber and calorie intake if you want to include discretionary calories into your daily menu. So if you’ve met your nutrient needs with 80-90% of your daily caloric intake (which is achieved, for the most part, by consuming “clean foods”), then you can have a treat for the remaining 10-20% of your daily calories.
- Keep track of the calories you have ingested using loseit. Loseit also shows you your daily carb, sodium, protein, and fat intake. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what you have just eaten, which is why I find it helpful to use loseit.
- Don’t exceed the recommended intake of fiber – otherwise you run the risk of bloating and malabsorption of nutrients.
- What is the daily recommended fiber intake? Women need 25 grams per day and men should get 38 grams per day, according to an Institute of Medicine formula based on getting 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories*. This is a guide I extracted from WebMD. This is merely a recommendation. If you watch the video I posted below, Dr. Layne Norton recommends at least 20 grams of fiber per day. From a bodybuilding perspective, he states between 40 and 60 grams of daily fiber intake is acceptable. He is not a fan of greater than 60g/day of fiber (because of bloating and malabsorption issues).
- Include these foods in your diet:
- Lean protein: white fish, chicken breast, salmon, turkey breast, egg whites, eggs, whey protein, lean beef, bison, etc.
- This is important: I eat my body weight in protein each day, meaning, if I weigh 128 lbs, I eat 128 grams of protein daily.
- Protein helps promote satiety!
- I eat protein at every meal!
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, flax oil, almonds, walnuts, ground flax seed, avocado, all-natural peanut butter, almond butter, extra virgin coconut oil, etc.
- Lots of vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, celery, bell peppers, green beans, spinach, kale, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, etc.
- I include veggies at every meal. Do not demonize veggies!
- Don’t avoid carbs. Slow-digesting carbs are your friend. Examples include Ezekiel bread, rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, low glycemic index fruit (blueberries, apples, grapefruit, raspberries, pears, oranges, etc), pumpkin, sweet potatoes, etc.
- Note: Do not eat carbs 90 minutes before bed (if your goal is fat loss) because it will disrupt your growth hormone output that occurs during sleep (note: growth hormone is your star fat-burning hormone). For more information about growth hormone and fasting, read my post, “Maximize Growth Hormone’s Fat-Burning Effect in 5 Easy Steps”.
- This is important: On days when you consume a higher quantity of the above-mentioned carbs, ensure you lower your fat intake. By the same token, on days when you consume less of the above-mentioned carbs, you can increase your fat intake.
- You can increase your carb intake on days when you train big muscle groups (ie. leg or full body workouts). Have low carb days on rest days and moderate carb days for other workout days. Don’t put yourself on a carb cycling program! It will be hard to remember from day to day how many carbs you are supposed to eat. Just use your brain and select your carb intake according to your activity level.
- I try not to put a lot of thought into this. I don’t want to start demonizing food again. The only principle I follow is LOW CARB/HIGH FAT and HIGH CARB/LOW FAT. If both your fats and carbs are high, you will have a hard time losing body fat.
- People ask me what I do. This is what I do: I eat my body weight in protein every day (128 lbs means 128 g protein), I prefer to follow a low carb and high fat diet because I love the taste of healthy fats! I love almonds, nut butter, coconut butter, guacamole so much more than oats or brown rice … but that’s just my palate. I eat a Quest Bar daily because I want to! In fact, I’m proof that you can eat a Quest bar a day and still have a 6 pack! I like to eat tons of high fiber/low calorie veggies, such as cucumber, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, peppers, spinach and mushrooms (because I rely on the principle of volumetrics to keep me full). I don’t eat a lot of fruit, only because I find it too sweet. Funny how my taste buds changed over the years. The key point is that I listen to my taste buds and apply my knowledge to ensure I can eat what I want and remain lean 365 days a year. Do I eat junk food like pizza, fries, candy, etc? Nope! Why not? Because my palate no longer desires these types of foods and I am WAY TO SMART to cheat. Have you seen my healthy recipes that look and taste like cheat food on drsarasolomon.com? Click here to access them for free so you can cheat the cheat!
- According to Donald Layman, Ph.D, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, non-exercisers should be consuming less than 40g of carbohydrates at each meal, which is the most your body can effectively process 2 hours postprandial. If you consume a meal containing more carbohydrates than your body can utilize, then the extra sugar will be stored as unsightly fat.
- Drink: Green tea, Matcha Green tea, Oolong Tea, Dandelion Tea, WATER! Note: coffee is fine.
- Note: these food lists are just lists of some examples. You get the idea!
- Discretionary Calories: well, that’s at your discretion. Maybe it’s a glass of wine or a Pop Tart? If you plan to go out drinking, I recommend a dry wine (low carb) and make sure you eat your daily protein requirements while minimizing your daily carb and fat intake. Combining alcohol with fats and carbs is a recipe for fat storing!
- Lean protein: white fish, chicken breast, salmon, turkey breast, egg whites, eggs, whey protein, lean beef, bison, etc.
IMPORTANT: read what the experts have to say:
- Please read Alan Aragon’s article, “The Dirt on Clean Eating“, which explains the best way to distribute discretionary calories.
- Please read Eric Trexler’s “The Clean Foods Paradox“. This article encourage dieters to eat foods to provide them with the nutrients they need, rather than demonizing certain foods. It is a more psychologically healthy relationship with food, and it allows for greater dietary flexibility (and therefore a greater chance for long-term adherence and success).
- Please watch this video by Dr. Layne Norton. He explains how to approach your daily food selection without compromising your physique or quality of life.
- If you want quick & easy healthy recipes, I recommend my Healthy Recipes Ebook. My recipes are perfect options for GRAZERS or INTERMITTENT FASTERS.
- You can also get my FREE healthy recipes to your inbox.
- And check out my FREE healthy recipes on www.drsarasolomon.com. If posted a recipe on my website, it’s because I’m eating it!
When to Eat?
You have many options. You can GRAZE (ie. eat 5-6 small meals a day every 2-3 hours) or you can experiment with decreased meal frequency. I’m a fan of Intermittent Fasting because it works for me (ie. it fits my schedule, saves me time, is less labour-intensive and never makes me feel hungry). Do what works for you. As always, consult with your physician.
Before you make decisions, you must gather research and think critically. For more information, I recommend you read my entire intermittent fasting blog.
For more information, please read my other philosophies:
- Think Critically
- Stop Overcomplicating Fat Loss
- Can’t Lose Fat Anymore? Then Stop the Over-Dieting and Endless Cardio!
- Sara’s Exercise Philosophy
- Why I’m an Intermittent Faster
- Should You Weigh Yourself?
- Not Losing Fat? Then Get More Sleep!
- White Poison: Sugar and Salt
- It’s Not a Diet! It’s a Lifestyle!
- How to Eat Clean, Train Mean & Stay Lean While Travelling!