I've been learning a lot this year about nutrition.
I tend to gain weight easily, and find it difficult to shed- a challenge I've faced since my mid 20s.
As part of my personal fitness goals, I've made it a primary focus, since other approaches I've tried to eating healthy just didn't cut it.
Here are 4 approaches that didn't work great for me.
- "Winging it," with good, healthy intentions, didn't work. No matter how good my intentions, and how determined I was to eat healthy and avoid junk food, I invariably made poor food decisions when I'm out with friends. Portion control was difficult, I'd still want to eat until I was hungry- and even though I was eating healthy food, it was often not in the right balance, or total calorie range. Lack of food-nutritional knowledge got me too- I'd often choose things I thought were the healthier option, but later learn how nutritionally unbalanced or calorie-laden that food option was. I've also found I can be over-strict, and skip meals in an effort to cut calories... which means by evening I'd be out-of-my mind hungry, and binge on something unhealthy.
- Restricted eating, i.e. eating as little as I can. I could lose weight here... over time, I'd lose appetite, and not really want food. But the low calories would also cause muscle loss and, lethargy. Muscle loss means my metabolism would drop, making it even harder to lose weight.
- Nutritionist-designed plan. I've also tried following a strict meal plan, set out by a nutritionist, which works great! ... for about 4 months. At that point I'm so tired of chicken and brown rice that my need for flavor and variety totally overcomes my willpower to stay strict. This could work, but only if your meal plan is adjusted regularly to compensate for the excruciating monotony.
- Intermittent fasting. This was the closest to a long-term solution, however I found that if I start eating late, like 1pm, or 3pm, it's difficult to finish eating early by e.g. 9pm. That meant eating dinner right before bed, which didn't work well for me. Overall though, I see good promise in incorporating some principles of intermittent fasting into my overall plan.
A plan that works
Since January 2019 ( 8 months now! ) I've been learning the basic nutritional rules that make up a healthy meal plan, and learning to craft my own.
This is probably the longest time I've been on an intentional eating plan ( call it a diet, if you like ) that lasted this long, and which I felt was sustainable.
I still feel comfortable with it. No cravings, no crazy hunger spikes, no bingeing, no monotony, or lack of flavor.
This approach gives me variety, and flexibility to deal with cravings and flavors I want.
In short here's my current, working approach...
- Plan, and track what I eat. This is easier than I expected, with a bit of preparation.
- Know my Base Metabolic Rate ( BMR ), which is the amount of calories you consume each day just to be alive. This usually assumes no exercise.
- Know my daily targets, both calories and macros ( protein, fats, carbs ). Currently, mine 2300 - 2500 calories per day, with about 50% protein.
- Hit my targets - also easier than I expected.
- Plan carbs towards the morning, taper them out in the evening. I eat six meals a day, so meals 5 and 6 are basically carbless.
- Make Exercise a part of my life, but not over-aggressively.
- Allow for cheat days. On cheat days, increase your total calorie count about 300-500 calories. The day following, decrease your total calorie count about 300-500 calories.
This approach has been easy to manage, relatively painless, and effective in a healthy, gradual kind of way.
Planning and Tracking
Planning and tracking is central. To make my support that, I've created a Google Sheet for tracking and managing my daily meal plans...
Here's Coach Mike's Meal Planner 1.0 if you're keen, complete with instructions...
There are a few things you need to know to design your own functioning meal plan.
- Your goals. Are you trying to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain?
- Your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is effectively the calories you burn per day, at your current age, weight and muscle mass. Theoretically if you eat exactly this much energy, and don't exercise, you'll maintain your weight exactly.
- Your favorite foods, recipes, and snacks. Spend some time listing these in the food database so that they're easy to measure at meal time. You don't want to be stuck crunching numbers when the hangry hits.
If your goal is to gain muscle, and trim fat...
- Eating regular meals, 6 times a day seems to work well.
- Targeting below your BMR.
- Carbs in the morning, and lunch, but virtually none in meals 5 and 6.
- When you do have carbs, go for slow carbs, high fibre natural sources. Rolled oats, sweet potato, brown rice.
Add in the flavor!
For a sustainable plan, flavor is essential. Figure out what you like, and how to create it without sabotaging your macros. I have certain favorite hot sauces, as well as coconut aminos ( which is like soy sauce ), and spices that contain no sugar.
Also, strong flavors such as garlic, chili, ginger are great and form the staple of my cooking.
How to Figure Out What's in your Food
You need to learn the details of what you're eating, which means cooking and planning your recipes well, or using resources which have the macros calculated for you.
All Recipes has nutritional profiles for many recipes, which is helpful if you follow the recipe well.
My Fitness Pal has a solid database for looking up ingredients.
Simply Googling anything, with e.g. "nutrition in 100g of X", you'll often find a good reference.
Some chain restaurants publish online stats- one of the few places I can eat out with confidence is Nando's chicken, since I have the macros for the Extra Hot half chicken, and the Mediterranean salad. This is great for when I'm traveling and don't have my kitchen or equipment to meal prep.
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