One problem I hear over and over again is, “I don’t know where to start with a diet!”
The vague, yet true, answer to this is that you need to find what works for you. This can be eating little and often or with an intermittent fasting approach to eating. There is a multitude of factors that will dictate how you approach a diet. For me, the number one priority should be to aim for the majority of your foods to come from a variety of whole food sources, e.g. grains, pulses, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
For me, a diet should follow these simple principles in their respective order:
Caloric balance should be the foundation of any nutrition plan. If it is weight loss you are looking to achieve then a calorie deficit is needed and if you are looking to achieve weight gain then a calorie surplus is required. It is as simple as that. Overeating is overeating and you will gain weight. It takes 3500kcal to burn 1lb of fat, so creating a calorie deficit of 500kcal a day for a week will burn 1lb of fat. The macronutrient breakdown of these calories is down to personal preference despite different macronutrients giving different hormonal responses.
Macronutrients should be the secondary concern of a nutrition strategy. The break down of the macronutrients should first be based on the amount of protein required to sustain/build muscles mass. The percentage of carbohydrates and fats after the total protein is calculated is really down to personal preference. Sporting requirements may also play a factor in this.
This should be the third priority of a diet. Eating a wide variety of whole foods should help you achieve this priority. Taking a look at the vitamins and minerals being consumed to ensure you are not deficient in anything. Micronutrients play a key role in the normal function of the body and shouldn’t be neglected.
This is the 4th priority for me and can be based a lot on lifestyle influences. Unless you are a full-time athlete it can be hard to find the time to fit in the perfect preworkout carbohydrate feeding. The timing of meals can be utilised to help with feelings of satiation when dieting and ensure adequate calories are being consumed when looking to gain weight. Now the anabolic window has been shown to go on for hours following a bout of exercise so you don’t need to rush home to chug a protein shake, but you should aim to consume some carbohydrates and protein around your training window.
This should be the final focus of a nutritional strategy. Supplements should supplement a diet not make up a diet. Taking 6 pills and 3 shakes a day is not a sustainable diet, but supplementing can help in the reduction of micronutrient deficiencies as well as making meals easier to consume (e.g. protein shake around the training window).
Using these five principles in their respective order can be used to create a sustainable diet. What I have found to work best with clients is 3 main meals with 2 smaller snacks and what I call lifestyle calories. Lifestyle calories are calories set aside out of the daily caloric intake for small treats (e.g. a frappe with friends) to help with adherence and to make a diet more flexible and bearable.