- Quantitative guidelines for nutrition are helpful as they tell you what to do to optimize performance or body composition. But, food is a part of life and these guidelines don’t tell you how to change your lifestyle.
- In sports that emphasize nutrition for aesthetic or performance goals, philosophical perspectives on healthy eating behaviors, social norms, and the so-called “dark side” can act as a wake-up call to those who become stuck in unhealthy relationships with food. However, philosophical pieces don’t often provide the structure to help athletes manage their nutrition in a healthy way that still results in goal achievement.
- The following article serves to bridge this gap. It pays heed not only to the long term mental and physical health of the athlete by acknowledging the difficulties and potential harm that comes from seeking “optimal nutrition”, but, also provides a logical structure to allow action in a goal-oriented manner.
If you’re familiar with the concept of “The Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid’s” first two foundation levels (Video one and two), I outlined the basics for strength or physique athletes and enthusiasts there. These videos provided the theoretical understanding of energy balance, guidelines for creating a surplus or deficit to reach appropriate rates of weight gain or weight loss depending on one’s goal, and finally how to distribute energy intake between the macronutrients in either case.
In a more recent article titled Beyond The Diet, I discussed some of the most common pitfalls I’ve seen as a coach among individuals attempting to follow the “optimal diet” and how this can eventually lead down a counterproductive, or even destructive path. While I think the perspective I shared in that article is invaluable as a “wake-up call” to many, and while I did provide some specific advice on how to avoid these pitfalls, the article didn’t provide a process, starting from the beginning, with a logical path towards avoiding the stated issues. Thus, the purpose of the present article is to provide a sequential structure to implement nutritional lifestyle changes.
Nutritionally, the goal for strength athletes (who have weight class based sports) is to find an approach that allows for progressive strength gains over a career, while also putting them in a position where they can compete in the most appropriate weight class to have the highest likelihood for being competitive. This typically means a surplus in calories resulting in some weight gain, but not so much that it puts them out of range for making weight and avoiding performance decrements. For physique athletes, the goal is similar but, more extreme. In the offseason between shows, the goal is to make gains in muscle mass while not putting themselves in a position where they can’t maintain those gains while dieting down over many months to achieve extremely low body fat levels. Finally, the non-competitive strength or physique enthusiast has the goal of achieving, and maintaining, as low of a “walk around” body fat percentage as they can, while carrying as much muscle mass as they can, feeling and staying healthy, not being food focused, and making continued gains in the gym. In all three cases, someone starts as a rank novice in terms of their nutritional knowledge and experience, and then eventually (hopefully), habituates their learnings and habits into a sustainable approach for the long term. What follows, is a sequential 4-part system, each phase building the skills needed to move on to the next, that I have successfully used for people with any of these three goals:
- Learning to Swim – Tracking baseline intake without intent to modify food behavior, tracking habits and thoughts and feelings related to eating, reading food labels and recording macros of habitual foods eaten, learning the basics of energy balance and macronutrients’ roles.
Key Points: This phase is about learning the basics of nutrition (what are calories and macros?), and learning what your current habits and preferences are. While this process might change your eating, the goal is not to institute changes yet. This also serves to establish your maintenance caloric intake.
- The Shallow End – Self-creating a meal plan(s) to hit target macronutrients appropriate for your goal by modifying portion sizes and baseline eating behaviour, with a focus on creating a structure that includes many of the habitually eaten foods. Self-creating meal plans (with a coach’s assistance) based on numerical targets will help to further connect foods with numbers.
Key Points: In this phase, the individual (even if they have a coach) creates a few meal plans based on their current habits, modifying what is needed to meet caloric, macronutrient, and food quality goals, and providing structure if there was not enough previously. Self-creation is critical as it empowers the individual, helps to establish the relationship between foods and numbers, and prevents a trainer from stepping out of their scope of practice.
- The Deep End – “Freestyle” If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) where macronutrient targets are hit within an acceptable range on a daily basis without regularly using a meal plan. Encouraging within-day changes to food selection or pivoting on the fly while still hitting macros builds skills that allow the client to stay roughly on the plan in future travel and holiday situations (also where 3-tiered priority of tracking methods can be introduced; Good: kcals only, Better: kcals & protein, Best: macros).
Key Points: This is the traditional IIFYM approach (where unfortunately many beginners try to start) where food is selected to hit numerical targets on the fly, or with minimal rigidity. Encouraging yourself or your client to plan less while still hitting targets builds confidence and the ability to stay close to targets even during social events or vacations.
- Free Ocean Swimming – Tracking as little as possible while still reaching goals. Focus is on maintaining eating habits without tracking. The use of hunger and satiety to assist in portion control should be the goal, which will be a new practice as “eating by the numbers” has superseded hunger and fullness in previous phases. Some weigh ins still recommended as a surrogate for energy balance to ensure this approach is successful. At this stage, you capitalize on the learning and habituation of the first 3 stages. Only the eating behaviours the client finds are the least automatic should be tracked (or the most important to their goals), but not necessarily recorded. For example, an offseason bodybuilder might keep a running tally of protein in their head. Semi-regular audits can also be used to ensure nutrition is within appropriate ranges.
Key Points: If weight gain or loss goal is not occurring, a focus on being less full or fuller after each meal can be implemented. This phase is typically not appropriate for dieting phases that would substantially increase hunger and food focus, which would be better suited to falling back to phase 3.
I know that between my previous linked work outlining both the quantitative and qualitative elements and issues, in combination with the current logical progression to learning nutrition, you will have a road map to help you reach your long-term goals. Just remember, diving into the deep end when you don’t yet know how to swim is a great way to drown!