As someone who is looking to optimise your body composition, boot camp performance, recovery, health and energy levels, it’s natural that you want to get to the bottom of it all and find out, once and for all, what foods you should be waving off into the distance. Thus in this article I’m going to tell you and explain why.
But, as usual it isn’t quite as simple as people make out. In fact, at the most basic level the real answer is: none - there are no foods which universally should be avoided completely.
One of the laws of human nature is that you will want something the most when you are told you can’t have it. Your willpower is a finite resource, which means that you’re eventually going to cave in and when you do you are going to go WAY overboard because this might be the last time, or at least it might feel like that. You’re going to ‘get it out of your system’ and have ALL of the chocolate because from tomorrow, you’re back on it and chocolate is back on the naughty list.
Those who eat an incredibly restrictive diet which gives specific ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods inevitably fall into the trap of adopting an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. What I mean by this is that they will be 100% adherent to their own set of rules until they slip up at which point their diet is ruined and they might as well eat an entire Toblerone then order a pizza, ready to start again tomorrow, or on Monday (1).
This cycle of ‘cheating’ or, more accurately binging, is unhealthy from a physical standpoint as your body is not really designed to eat whole 18’’ pizzas followed by dessert, but it can also ruin your progress. It’s popular dogma to say that you can’t get fat in one meal, but unfortunately you can.
When researched, it’s very clear that having a flexible approach to your diet that allows for a few foods and meals that don’t follow typical ‘healthy’ eating patterns gives SIGNIFICANTLY better results in the long run than those diets which look, on paper, to be superior (2). The flexible approach allows you to stick to it, and it’s sticking to it that gets you where you want to be.
Surely, I’m not saying you can just eat what you like provided calorie balance is right? When it comes to choosing foods, I advocate that you don’t completely eliminate ANY food unless you have a specific negative reaction to it. Most people can eat whatever they like within certain guidelines that I’ll put below, but some people react poorly to wheat, gluten, dairy, nuts or any number of other things. These people should also check out this article about gut health to properly handle your symptoms.
Rather than elimination of some foods, I advocate emphasis on whole, unprocessed, natural and fresh foods. Every time we eat we need to be trying to maximise the nutritious load that we are taking in and that means fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality whole protein sources, fibre-rich carbohydrates and a moderate amount of natural fats should be the backbone of every meal.
Your plate should be vibrant, as the colour of vegetables and fruits indicates some of the nutrients therein and we want to make sure we are hitting the full spectrum. What this does is that it doesn’t actually leave you much ‘room’ to include other foods, as your total daily calorie need is pretty much used up by eating enough awesome, healthful, natural foods.
But this is an emphasis on those 'healthy' foods, not total eradication of everything else.
Fat gain and loss is based around calorie balance, meaning you need a certain amount of calories to maintain your weight, and by going over or under this you will gain or lose. If you stay 500 calories under your maintenance requirement you’ll lose somewhere in the region of 1lbs of fat over the course of a week (It’s not accurate, but it’s somewhere near there). Check out that article and this one about nutrition for beginners to get a little background on the rules which you need to follow for optimal health and improvements in both body composition and energy.
I follow the philosophy that food works on an 90/10 rule. This rule dictates that provided you adhere to your approach at least 90% of the time, the other 10% won’t make all that much difference to your results. It’s this 10%, which will often boarder closer to 20% tops, that I want to talk about here.
Provided you account for it in your total calorie need, pretty much all food can be eaten in low moderation. Moderation is not a sexy word, but it’s one which can make your nutrition – and life – a whole lot more fun. What do I mean by low moderation?
There is typically two schools of thought in the fitness industry which are popular at the moment. They are the ‘clean eating’ guys who believe that some foods can and cannot be eaten, period. Then you have the people who say it’s all calories in vs calories out and so long as you get enough protein you can eat whatever you want. I like to sit in the middle as I believe that both of them are missing something.
The clean eaters are kind of right. It will be more beneficial for your body, optimally, to eat a 100% wholefood diet all the time. Everything single ingredient, locally sourced, organic, unprocessed and fresh. The problem is that this is unrealistic – it’s expensive for a start, but more than this it restricts social gatherings and some of life’s simple pleasures, making it unsustainable in the long run.
The other guys are kind of right, too. At the most basic level, energy balance and protein intake will more or less determine your physical results (3). You’ll get leaner and stronger eating a diet of protein powder and cake if you calories are in check because these foods don’t really have different hormonal responses (4) or affect your body differently than whole foods do. These guys do, however, miss the side of nutrition that takes care of health and longevity – whole foods are micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) powerhouses that will keep you healthier and allow your body to function optimally, so we need them.
Where I sit is this: most of your meals should be whole foods, in fact almost all of them should. After that, if you want to include sugar, oils or alcohol into your intake, you should feel free to do so. Use a little oil to cook meals, have a dessert or a beer once or twice per week, just don’t make it a large amount on a daily basis.
Sugar isn’t inherently bad for you, it’s just calorie dense without being filling and really tasty. These two things make it really easy to overeat sugar, thus overeating calories, and this makes it really easy to gain unwanted fat. It doesn’t even provide us with any essential nutrients to account for the calorie load, so making it only a small part of your diet ensures you get to enjoy it without the drawbacks.
Oils are often given the green light by health enthusiasts because they hold many health benefits. This is awesome, but the benefits come from the fats in the oils rather than the oils themselves, and these fats are present in whole foods. The two most popular oils are olive and coconut. Olive oil contains fats found in nuts, seeds, olives, avocadoes and some fish, whilst coconut oil contains fats found in, well, coconut. The oil forms give health benefits, but you need to account for the fact that, like sugar, oils don’t fill you up that much but are incredibly calorie dense. A simple tablespoon of oil contains as many calories as a scoop of ice cream! Using oils is great, as they make food taste infinitely better, and as mentioned they DO have health benefits, but I would personally recommend you use them in a moderate fashion, and always use measuring spoons rather than ‘glugs’ when using oil for dressings etc.
Alcohol is the final one which is typically demonised, but this is largely unwarranted. Small amounts of alcohol (1-2 glasses of wine or beer for example) do nothing harmful to your body, won’t affect your boot camp performance at all, and don’t contain as many calories as people think they do (5). The problem arises when you drink with the intention of getting drunk on a regular basis, as when you are drunk you lose inhibitions about everything, including the local kebab shop menu. Then when you are hungover you are unable to train and just want bad food all the time as your energy is in the floor and your cravings are sky high. The message here is to have a glass of wine or two once or twice per week – enjoy them and don’t feel guilty at all...but it might not be the best idea to start doing shots of spirits every week
As I said above, this is not me giving free reign to eat whatever you want – far from it. My recommendations will always be to eat whole, natural foods as often as you reasonably can because it is these foods which will nourish your body, give you energy, and make you look good, naked.
I’m also a realist, though, and I want people to enjoy their life. Going for less than optimal foods every now and then won’t actually harm your goals and can, in fact, make your end results better.