Nowadays, everybody is on a specific diet. Thanks to the internet, the average fitness and health enthusiast is exposed to all kinds of different diet information.
When you order your burger without the bun, you get asked if you do paleo. For many people, vegetarian or even vegan is the hip thing to do. The mediteranian diet is emerging and some people swear by the mindful diet.
Now, how do you choose from the plethora of diets to fit your personal health goals? Which one will get you to the holy grail of six-pack abs? Read on to find out.
Well, the above question is similiar to asking: Does the blue or the red shoe fit my feet better?
You are asking the wrong question.
Sure, if you really like the philosophy behind a certain diet, be it that you love to think about eating like your ancestors or to pass on that ribeye steak because you have a soft spot for cows, go for it.
Just as some people like different colors, people lean towards different styles of eating.
But the problem with choosing a diet is that people often stop using their common sense. They follow some arbitrary set of rules and in turn expect wonders to happen.
It’s almost like dieting is the new religion.
And for every diet, there is a guru who shares his wisdom of eating the supposedly right foods.
While many of these gurus have earned their right to talk, especially when they try to base their dietary advice on science and actual studies, they often declare certain kinds of food as villains and like to overinterpret data from scientific studies.
Some of you may get excited about biohacking and analyzing the latest findings about food and its effect on humans (findings that are mostly based on rats, mice and other animals, which are, well, not humans).
I’d like to not concern myself with such trivialties. As with everything, I like to keep it simple. I also like to choose my own path and I think you should, too.
Here are some basic principles you may find helpful in finding your own, custom diet. I call it: Eating.
1. Eat Real Food
This is the first commandment (already sounding like a religion). Everything in this article is based on this. I’d say this is the only strict rule you need to have in mind when deciding what to eat.
Ask yourself: Would my grandparents have eaten that?
Real food includes things like meat, vegetables, nuts, grains, eggs, etc. … wait, did you just say g-g-gr-grains?! To all you primal/paleo folks: Yes, it is ok to have a nice rustique sordough bread fresh from the baker, or a portion of rice, homemade pizza or even a serving of pasta once in a while. You won’t die from it, especially if you are a fairly active person, which I’ll just assume because you are on this website. Just don’t make it a staple.
Food that is not real is highly processed food, loaded with chemicals and sugar. Skip everything that says “I am healthy!!!” on the package. That includes all the non- und lowfat garbage, which make up for the loss in flavor by adding sugar and other crap.
Does it have to be organic?
Well, organic, grass-fed, pastured, non-GMO, etc. are all features to be desired in food. But the answer to this question just depends on the depth of your pockets.
In general, go for the highest quality you can afford.
You’ll still do better eating real, non-organic food than somebody eating processed crap, which is also never anywhere near organic.
2. Go Green
Almost all dietary religions have this one point in common: Eat your damn vegetables. Learn to love them and to cook them. Make them the foundation of your diet. Have some sort of vegetable with every meal.
Make it colorful and try different vegetables. Have some go-to veggies.
They give you the most nutritional bang for your caloric buck.
Minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, you name it. All for the price of a ridiculously low amount of calories.
Buy a bunch of vegetables and put them in the sink with a little vinegar to get rid of the chemicals. After 10 minutes, cut them all up and store them in food containers in your fridge. Depending on your knife skills, this only takes about 15-30 minutes.
You can now throw those veggies in your salads, use them as sides for dinner or just snack on them. You will now cook with ninja speed. You are welcome.
3. Context Matters
Conventional dietary wisdom tells you that fat is bad, especially saturated fat. This is nonsense, as saturared fat, on its own, from real butter or coconut oil is just an excellent source of energy.
You just have to be aware of the context in which you eat certain foods. Broccoli fried in butter is not a problem. Pancakes served with maple syrup and a hunk of butter are a different kind of animal.
If you get lots of simple sugars together with a good amount of fat, basically what you have is a killer combination of two really efficient sources of energy.
Your body converts both fat and sugar at different rates. Simple sugar is turned into energy quite fast, while saturated fat can give you a nice, even level of energy for a longer peroid of time. But if there’s just too much energy at once, your body stores it for rougher times when such an abundance of food might not be available.
4. Drink Water
Skip the soda. Go easy on the coffee (I know, harder than it sounds). Stay hydrated without adding to much fuzz to your liquids. Also, those fancy coffee drinks from Starbucks are not drinks, they’re desserts. Treat them as such.
Sodas are so far from being real food that everybody should ditch them permanently.
I’m talking about all sweetened drinks, energy drinks and diet sodas. They’re all full of chemicals.
It’s quite obvious why you should avoid sugary drinks, because drinking your calories can quickly add up. Diet sodas are not in the slightest a better choice. The chemicals they contain mess up your sugar metabolism and appetite.
You often hear the recommendation to drink 8 glasses of water per day. Such generalized numbers are bullshit. Your personal hydration needs depend on your height, weight, gender, activity level and the kinds of food you eat.
I won’t advice you to drink a certain amount per day. There is a fascinating mechanism already implemented in your body to do that. It’s called being thirsty. If you stick to pure water and maybe a few cups of coffee and/or tea, your natural instict to drink will tell you the right thing to do.
Overhydration is just as bad as dehydration. Also, most people underestimate the amount of water that is in your food. It’s plenty, especially if you eat real food like fruits, vegetables and meat.
5. Make It Yourself
As in cooking, that is. Not knowing how to cook even just simple things like scrambled eggs or a stir-fry is just embarassing, for both women and men.
Knowing how to cook has many benefits. When using real foods as ingegredients, you’ll know which ingredients go into your meal. It usually tastes better than the prepackaged crap. It’s cheaper than a take-away meal. Inviting her or him over to a homemade dinner is a killer date idea.
You don’t have to become a pro cook. These days, you can learn basic cooking techniques by watching Youtube tutorials. A few simple recipes plus some solid knife and pan skills are all you need. Cook them again and again, until you master them. Slowly build up your repertoire.
Which brings me to the next point …
6. Establish Some Staples
Food is fuel. Just as you don’t want to decide which kind of gas you put in your car everytime you stop at the gas station, you don’t want to do heavy research before you eat.
Sure, you want to enjoy life, try different things and make it interesting and healthy.
But if you want to cook most of your meals yourself, this can get exausting. Extensive decision making diminishes your mental energy.
Having staples gives you quite a few advantages. You already know how to cook them well and fast. You know what to shop for. You probably like it and don’t have to waste time thinking about a meal plan. Cook it, eat it and get on with live.
That doesn’t mean you have to eat the same thing over and over again. It just means you have a system that works well for your activity level and schedule.
You might have eggs and bacon every day for breakfast. But you can prepare it differently by making omelets, scrambled, poached or fried eggs. Or you might use different spices.
For lunch, you may have a salad that consists of dark leafy greens, some sort of protein and one or two vegetables of your choice. This might be different every week.
For dinner, you could cook a hearty chilli that lasts you a few days. Next week it’s something else you cook on batch. Whenever I’m cooking dinner, I usually make a bigger batch. This way, I’ll have at least two meals for the price of one cooking session.
Again, it might take a while until you have a system that works well for you. Just pick one staple meal and master it. If that gets boring, pick another one. When you have mastered a couple of recipes, you can rotate them throughout the month.
7. Adjust to Your Activity Levels
Let’s go back to the shoe analogy. Of course, when you try a new shoe, you check if it is your size. You grab the one pair that has your size and ignore all the other shoes in the store for now (at least this is how I do it as a guy). Even if different shoes of the same size may fit differently, you know which ballpark you’re in.
Same goes for your caloric needs. If you do crossfit four times a week, bike 10 miles to work, play the occasional soccer game and like to go rock climbing on the weekends, a ketogenic diet might just not be for you. You need some calories, maybe even in the form of some carbs.
The average desk jockey that sits all day, drives to work in his car and struggles to get his workout in once a week? He might have to skip on the pasta in order to maintain his current weight.
8. Portion Control
They say eat until you are not hungry anymore, not until your belly is almost bursting and you have to readjust your belt.
I agree partially. I do not buy in the six-meal-a-day hype that the fitness industry is trying to sell us. I like to eat three full meals a day, sometimes only two, sometimes just one big meal and a few snacks throughout the day.
Be flexible. When you know you’re going on a long hike, of course you want to have a big, hearty breakfast. That way, you can munch on a few snacks to make it through the hike and have dinner when you come back.
This is another case where context matters. All the talk about keeping your metabolism going by having lots of meals throughout the day is complete bullshit.
Eat when you’re hungry. Adjust the portion sizes according to your schedule.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how often you eat. The important thing is what you eat and how much in summation.
9. Choose Your Vices
Everyone has them and nobody is perfect. Some choose to have them only on cheat days, some call it the 80/20 principle and others still struggle to quit having junk food on a regular basis.
First thing to consider might be not to have junk food in the house.
Being and staying healthy means you need to make the good guys win over the bad guys.
The simplest way to win is to outnumber your opponents. Clear your pantry and fridge from all the processed garbage. Now stock up on vegetables, fruits, nuts, quality meat and other good food.
But sometimes you just want ice cream, or a couple of beers or the cake your mum baked for your birthday.
The secret is to consciously decide to have that one treat once in a while. Be wary of rationalizations (“I deserve this. Just this one … maybe just one more. I’m pregnant!” … kidding!). Plan to have that treat in advance. Make it social, like calling your friends out for a few drinks at the bar or a movie night with greasy take-away food. The best way may be to make it yourself. Bake a cake and enjoy the hell out of it. By planning a treat, you feel in control and stop the cycle of emotional eating. Just be sure to keep it occasional.
I don’t use them. I’m lucky enough to be what I like to call a high level omnivore. There’s not much food out there that I despise right away, as long as it’s properly cooked or prepared. That way, I get a lot of variety in my diet, despite eating quite simple staple meals most of the time.
I don’t like protein powder, because I get enough protein from eating eggs, meat and nuts. Some days I’ll have less, some days I’ll have a barbecue where I eat a 16 oz. steak. There is no real need for whey protein in anyone’s diet. It’s the fitness industry that cleverly markets supplements and tricks you into believing that you need it.
The fact is, most people struggle with the basic principles I laid out above. If you don’t eat real food and lots of vegetables most of the time, don’t even think about supplements.
That would be the same as not getting into the habit of exercising, but theorizing about wich type of contraction works your biceps the most.
I’m not saying supplements are evil. If you really like your protein shakes and can’t be bothered to prepare a full meal with a protein source, go for it. If you hate fish like it’s the devil’s grandma, you may want to think about taking fish oil capsules. But only if your diet is 95% perfect.
Again, this advice is for the average fitness and health buff. A pro-athlete or bodybuilder might have to squeeze those last 2% of genetic potential out of their bodies. Most people would be perfectly happy to be at 90% of their potential. Eating mostly real food might just take you there.
Wrapping It Up
This article is the grand daddy of my diet philosphy. Everything else I’ll write about diet will be some kind of derivative of the things I laid out above.
I realize this is not the sexiest approach to dieting. It might be boring to some, and some of you will say that I provide no real insights or shortcuts to cutting down or bulking up. This philosphy does not offer any hacks.
I’ll tell you one more secret: There are no shortcuts.
But eating real food is a hack in itself. It hacks the one part of dieting that most people struggle with: Sticking with it.
I think many popular diets share a certain amount of common sense. But they can be limiting. And putting up with those limitations – and breaking them once in a while – is a big stressor on your mental capacity. Eating normal (whatever that means nowadays) makes you feel bad when you are on a diet.
I’ve been on the paleo diet for quite a while, even with some nice recompositioning results. But it’s hard to stick to. Eating grains with everything is the norm. The social awkwardness and the feeling to be on some diet and having those forbidden fruits makes it more likely for me to give in and chow down on a bag of cookies.
Also, I think there is just no one-size-fits-all diet. People react differently to different types of food and have different dietary needs. You need to take the hard road, listen to your body and choose what makes you feel and perform the best.
Some of the more reasonable diets – in my opinion paleo/primal still fits into this category – promote themselves as being lifestyle changes rather than just eating certain kinds of food.
I think an even better way would be to adjust your diet to your existing lifestyle. Find the best and healthiest way of eating that clicks with you while still enjoying a few beers with friends once in a while and a piece of cake at birthday parties.
Photo sources: Duncan H: riots not diets, Neil M: fruit stand, Raleene C: vegetables, Leo H: pancakes, Vinoth C: water tap, Nicole A: cooking, Asbjorn P: bacon and eggs, Ulrich P: squirrel, Craig S: plate with spinach, Keoni C: big m, Jamie: pills