When you first start to exercise, you start small. You take things slowly, incrementally adding intensity and volume (or training time) until you get the desired effect. What you don’t do is sign up for a marathon before you can climb stairs without getting out of breath, or enter a powerlifting competition before you know what a deadlift is.
Nutrition works on the same principle.
Although it’s a very different kettle of fish – you’re eating things, not risking injury with incorrect exercise – a lot of the same principles apply because you are dramatically altering one of the fundamental parts of life: what you eat every day. And as I’ve said hundreds of times in the past, the ONLY diet that will work to make you leaner, healthier, more energetic and able to perform better is the one that you can stick to long term.
Another thing I need to mention before I start giving you practical tips is this; dietary choices follow the 90/10 rule. This means that provided you are ‘on point’ 90% of the time, the other 10% won’t make too much of a difference over the course of time (1). For example, if you are eating 5 meals per day, but one of those meals is a pre made wrap from Tesco with very few vegetables and a poor protein count, but it fits within your calorie needs for the day and you ‘make up’ for the poor nutrition with other meals, then it won’t matter all that much.
The approach I like to take with people who are first starting out is to form good habits around eating. The food we eat, when we eat it, how we eat it and the amount we eat is largely habitual. We build these habits over the course of our lifetime and that makes them difficult to alter or replace. We build habits slowly, maybe introducing them one or two at a time week to week until we have build a completely new set by the time a few weeks has passed. This process is slow, but deliberate and steady enough to make sure consistent progress is seen whilst not being too much of a shock to the system. Follow each habit below, without changing anything else, and move to the next one when your habit seems natural. It may take a few weeks to get to where we want to be, but like I say, the important thing is that once you get there, you stay there!
We start with the most important habits first, with most people going through the same few initial steps. After this, a solid foundation is built which we can then improve upon in a more individual manner.
You don’t need to drink on a schedule, or drink a certain pre-determined amount, as the thirst instinct is an excellent signal for needing hydration; all you need to do is quench your thirst with water most of the time. It’s also acceptable to use sugar free juice concentrate, teas, small to moderate amounts of coffee and even diet sodas on occasion if you like. BUT, the bulk of your fluid intake should be water, this is what we are designed to drink, and anything other than water usually comes along with additives that are non ideal, but we are still exercising the 90/10 rule here.
One of the PRIME culprits in unwanted weight gain can be calories consumed in liquid form (2), as these don’t fill you up at all, and are therefore often consumed on top of the food you would ordinarily eat. Also, as an added kick in the teeth, some research shows that including these sugary drinks can cause a sugar spike followed by a crash which then creates a greater hunger signal, meaning you eat more!
Don’t drink your calories, and you might see a dramatic change without doing anything else.
The next step to improving your current dietary habits is to perform a ‘kitchen cull’. The average kitchen cupboard is full of crisps, cakes and cookies. The law of human nature dictates that if something is in your house, eventually you will eat it, and for the time being it’s not a good idea to have that much temptation lying around in plain sight.
What this should do is get rid of ‘obvious crap’ which you snack on in-between meals, and we do this because this is one of the first three habits that I like to instil upon people who are taking up a new healthy lifestyle – reduce snacks in between meals. I’m not saying never snack, but I am saying that if you are regularly grazing on things in between meals, especially high calorie stuff, this is where calories can creep in which will hamper your progress towards your goals, and make it difficult to optimise your body composition.
This is done to improve micronutrient (vitamin, mineral and antioxidant) as well as fibre intake, but also to reduce calorie intake for those who need it. Filling up a large amount of your plate with low calorie, high nutrient foods reduces your overall calorie load because you get full much easier with added food bulk (one of the body’s primary signals for fullness is physical fullness of the stomach) and stay full for longer due to the fibre. It will also dramatically improve your overall wellbeing to start to eat enough vitamins and minerals for optimal bodily function. A serving, for clarification, is about the size of your fist. This rule goes even for breakfast, so fire up the omelette pan!
I find those who suffer most due to diet-related poor health, weight problems and poor energy are those who ‘graze’ and eat a real meal here and there. They are habitual meal-skippers (breakfast being the most common, although lunch isn’t a rarity) who make up for it by snacking regularly then eating ‘big’ when they get home. Structure your meals into a defined breakfast, lunch and dinner*, with another meal to be eaten somewhere in the day when you find yourself most hungry. For boot camp attendees, my recommendation will always be to have a small meal around 4pm, as this is a few hours after lunch and a few hours before evening boot camp starts. It’s a great opportunity to make sure you have the energy you will need to complete a hard session, whilst also giving you the nutrients needed to benefit from your hard work optimally.
*Breakfast doesn’t have to come immediately upon waking. If you want to have your ‘breakfast’ at 12-1pm, that’s absolutely fine, so long as that doesn’t turn into a morning of snacks.
Protein is the most important macronutrient to consume for overall health, boot camp performance and recovery due to it being essential for muscle growth and repair, and finally for body composition. A higher protein intake will enable you to burn more calories at rest due to the thermic effect of protein burning around 20% of the calories contained within it during digestion, and also because it’s really filling which helps you eat less.
Similar to vegetables, you should be eating protein with every meal. Regular protein feedings throughout the day enable your body to use it more effectively (3), but this also just makes it far easier to make sure you get enough total protein throughout the whole day without accurately counting grams of protein. A simple bit of advice I like to follow is to eat a palm sized piece of protein at all main meals. The larger you are as an individual the larger your pal, likely is, so it can be easily matched for personal needs. So put your hand up against that chicken serving and see how it fairs.
This means that when you go to sleep tonight, you will know (at least roughly) what you’re going to eat tomorrow. Leaving it up to chance when you first start out is a dangerous path to go down as you are not likely to be used to eating protein and vegetables this regularly, and if you get stuck without a meal the modern world makes it quite difficult to manage to do on the fly. It’s unlikely you’ll get a high protein, nutritious meal in your work’s canteen, or the local burger van!
Planning ahead also allows you to account for meals that are out of your control. For example if you know you are heading out to eat and will likely be having something that is higher in calories than you usually would, you can simply reduce calories from earlier meals by skipping the carb and/or fat sources, effectively giving yourself a ‘buffer’ at dinner when you know you are going to eat more.
Once you have these habits all in place, you should be eating roughly the correct amount of calories for your goals, eating enough protein and vegetables, drinking more water and eating on a regular schedule. You should also understand that every now and then it’s not harming your results to eat a little bit of ‘bad’ food here and there.
This should be enough on top of your BMF class to get most people to their goals without much of a problem. If you feel that your goal is a little higher reaching, or you simply want to dial things in a little more because you have an analytical mind, please follow this article by reading Nutrition Part 1.
Until then, start getting those veggies in!