This is not your parents nutrition article.
I am not going to force-feed you a list of arbitrary foods labeled “good” or “bad” because the truth is, food should not be labeled in black and white terms. There are no “bad” foods, only bad diets.
Any food can be labeled “good” in the right context just as any food can be considered a poor choice in the wrong context.
For example, are grains bad? It depends on whom you ask.
Is milk/dairy bad? How about sugar? What about fruit? Fat is bad though, right?
When talking about food in isolation it can be hard to know what quality nutrition really is. However, we do not eat food in isolation so we don’t have to analyze individual foods. We eat in combinations of food that make up our diet. Therefore, we look at diets as a whole, in context of what the individual’s goals are.
Just as there is not a perfect workout program for everyone, one diet is not optimal for everyone either.
We need a system to ensure our continued progress and something to look at to bring us back on track should we stray.
This system is in context of someone looking to maximize ones physique or sports performance, not live the healthiest life possible (although they can be quite similar).
Since this is more of a “list” piece, I did not provide a ton of information under each layer. For more information on how to implement the layers be sure to check out the further reading links provided.
Layer 1 (Most Important) – Calories
One of the fundamental facts of nutrition is your success, or lack there of, will largely come down to energy balance –calories in versus calories out. Whether your goal is to gain muscle, lose fat or improve performance, dialing in your caloric intake is key.
If you want to gain weight and build muscle you are going to need to be in an energy surplus. On the flip side if you want to lose weight you need to be at a caloric deficit. I hate to make it sound so simplistic but that’s what it boils down to.
Before worrying about anything else, this needs to be taken care of. Don’t ask me about what supplements to take or how important free range beef is if you don’t even know how many calories you’re consuming in a day.
But what about the people who say, “all calories are not created equal” – move on to layer two.
Further Reading: How to Calculate Calorie and Macronutrient Requirements
Layer 2 – Macronutrients (Macros)
I call it Flexible Dieting but you can call it whatever you like. It’s just making your nutrition qualitative. Put a number next to it like you would your lifting. Somewhere between the countless Instagram Pop Tart and Ice Cream posts (IG=@huntfitness) people got the impression Flexible Dieting/IIFYM was all about eating junk food. That is NOT the case.
The makeup of your diet breaks down into Calories and Macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). Flexible Dieting is just tracking your food and fitting what you eat into specific macronutrient goals. Nutrition is a numbers game.
Although a “clean eater” does not track their food, it still breaks down into macros (numbers) –they just wouldn’t be aware of them. So simply saying “macro diets don’t work” or “Flexible Dieting doesn’t work” is not appropriate. Eating junk food all day doesn’t work but that is not Flexible Dieting.
Similarly to calories, macronutrient totals and ratios are dependent on what the individuals goals are. One generic macronutrient ratio will not be optimal for everyone.
Macronutrients are important because diets that are matched calorically can have vastly different effects on ones look and performance. Calories determine what your body does on a large scale and macronutrients determine the details within that.
Further Reading: How to Start Flexible Dieting
Layer 3 – Micronutrients, Fiber and Water
I can hear it now – “This guy is an idiot! He listed vitamins, minerals and water third on the list. Doesn’t he know they are essential to life?”
Yes I do. However, if the first two levels are followed you should be hitting your macros with foods that will satisfy hitting micronutrient and fiber goals. Go ahead, try hitting bodybuilding/performance macros with all junk food…it won’t work.
As for water, our thirst mechanism pretty much takes care of how much water we should be drinking in a day without requiring too much effort towards dialing it in. As long as you are not thirsty your water intake is probably sufficient. This is NOT to say micronutrients, fiber and water are not important (quite the contrary), just acknowledging why they are third on the list.
A quick note on fiber. Just because it is “good” doesn’t necessarily mean more is better. When fiber gets up into the 80-100g+ range you may start to run into gastrointestinal track issues and malabsorption of certain micronutrients.
My general fiber recommendations are as follows:
10-20% of total carb intake with a minimum of 20g and a maximum around 80g.
If you are on a low carb diet shoot for higher on that range whereas if you are on a high carb diet shoot for lower on the range.
100g of carb per day = (20%) 20g of fiber
500g of carbs per day = (10%) 50g of fiber
I know I didn’t say much about micronutrients. Just make it a point to eat some fruit and vegetables every day. Check out the further reading below if you have any questions!
Layer 4 – Everything Else
Before I say anything here let me first mention, if you don’t have the first three layers of your diet taken care of nothing else matters. Master layers 1-3 before dipping down here into level 4. Be careful because layer 4 is a lot sexier than the basics up in layers 1-3. Many people have fell victim to the content in layer 4 and forget what matters most.
If I had to put a percentage on it I would say layers 1-3 will account for 90-95% of your overall success. That leaves a mere 5-10% to all of the things in layer 4. Keep that in mind.
Nutrient Timing (Peri Workout Nutrition)
It will not matter how great your post workout shake is if you don’t know how many calories or protein you are eating on a daily basis. Don’t be that guy who makes sure to always get his 40g of whey isolate in immediately post workout but then eats 20g of protein the rest of the day.
With that being said, when looking to maximize performance it would be negligent not to look at optimizing your nutrition around your workouts.
For pre workout I like to think functionally. What provides you with enough energy to train but not too much substance to slow you down. This will vary from person to person. Timing will be an important factor here as well. I typically recommend eating 1-3 hours pre workout, consuming a mixed meal of protein, carbohydrate and fat. However, I realize shit happens and the perfect pre workout meal is not always feasible and that’s alright.
Most people will not need anything outside of water during their workouts. For those of you who train really hard and long I recommend some carbs during training if nothing more than to provide a small burst of substance (energy) to finish the workout. Go with something that will sit well in your stomach. I like Gatorade for this purpose.
For post workout, if you are an endurance athlete or a hard training CrossFitter, Powerlifter, Bodybuilder, or team sport athlete with multiple training sessions in a day the age-old protein and fast acting carbohydrate post workout meal may have some importance. Outside of that, just eat another balanced meal of protein, carbohydrates and fat. I treat post workout as just another meal.
If you are on a low carb diet there will be more benefit to partitioning carbs around your workout time. However, if you are like me and are already eating 60g+ carbs per meal I see no point in making sure I get a certain percentage of my overall carb intake peri workout.
There is nothing wrong with nutrient timing – it won’t hurt your progress but I don’t like people feeling like they HAVE to do it. It becomes another thing people have to worry about, and quite frankly most of the time it is not worth it.
Further Reading: Eating Around Your Workout: Peri Workout Nutrition
How many times you eat in a day. There is a wide range of successful answers here – Anywhere from 3 to 5 seems to be a sweet spot as long as you are taking into account the first three layers on this list.
You do not need to eat more or less frequently to improve performance or to increase fat burning or any of that bullshit – it’s just not true.
Whatever meal frequency pattern allows you to be consistent is going to be the answer here. If eating three times a day fits your lifestyle then eat 3 times a day.
As far as meal frequency goes I recommend reading my article Are You Consuming Too Much Protein – Optimal Intake for Athletes . You will see why when you get there.
Food quality still matters, it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as people give it credit for as long as your calories and macronutrients are in check.
I have people ask me how important it is they go out and buy grass fed beef but then can’t tell me how many calories they are eating, or how much protein they are getting in on average daily. You must master the basics before moving on to intricate details.
I feel there is enough written about “quality food” choices that you already know what they are.
I have no further reading on this subcategory…
They are called “supplements” for a reason – to supplement your diet. There are however some supplements that can definitely help you out.
Creatine works .
Fish oil is great for anyone who doesn’t eat a lot of fish.
Whey protein makes it a lot easier to hit your daily protein intake goals.
Caffeine speaks for itself.
Further Reading: Hunt Fitness Supplement Guide
This article is all about focusing on what is important. Obviously there is a lot of information out there on nutrition and it can be difficult to know what it takes to get results. Start at the top and work your way down. Focus on being consistent. Nothing will work if you only do it half of the time. If you can only get the first three layers down, you will be 90-95% of the way there and for most people that is all it takes.
Bonus Further Reading – If you have not read my FREE Flexible Dieting Manual yet, it covers pretty much everything you need to know on how to implement all the layers of this list. Get it for FREE by clicking the picture below!