When it comes to diet there are a million and one different ways you can go about it. With so much diet information out there today it can be overwhelming to decide what you should be doing. I want to talk about the three pillars of diet that we know will lead to success. If you follow one of them then you probably won't have much success. If you follow two of them you might have some success but you will never reach your full potential. You will most likely hit a plateau at some point. The only way to consistently make progress is to follow all 3 pillars. If you stick to these three pillars then there is no limit to what you can achieve. The 3 pillars are quality of food, quantity of food, and consistency.
1. Quality of Food
To me quality of food is the most important of the three. If you are eating high quality foods then you will most likely be getting most of your micronutrients for the day, you will most likely be decreasing inflammation, you will most likely be getting close to the right amount of macronutrients, and you will most likely not be overeating. Quality of food is the most important aspect of diet for health for all of these reasons. If your goal is to live a long and healthy life then this is the one you need to get in line first and should dedicate most of your time to. If you are already near your ideal bodyweight and have not interest in performance then you can get the most benefit by focusing on this pillar.
So what does quality of food look like? Sticking to the CrossFit prescription is a great place to start (lean meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, little starch, no sugar). Cutting out processed foods, looking for locally grown, organic food, trying to get grass fed beef, and staying around the perimeter of the grocery store are all great ways to make sure you are getting high quality food. Every meal should be colorful and as natural as possible. If every meal you eat has a lean meat, a lot of vegetables, and a healthy fat source then you will be setting yourself up for a high quality diet. Another thing to look at is food intolerances. Many people don't digest certain foods well causing inflammation in the gut (see my previous article on gut health). Another important component is to see what foods you don't digest well and cutting them out. For example, avocados and almonds are both very healthy foods but I do not digest them well at all so I have eliminated them from my diet. Hopefully down the road my gut will be fixed and I got add them back but for now they are a no go for me. You can find out what you don't tolerate by trial and error or by having a food sensitivity test done.
When it comes to making changes to your diet quality would be the first thing I would look at. Eating higher qualities of foods will eliminate many of the issues with the modern diet. It is not the only pillar though. There are still two more that you will need to add for peak results.
2. Quantity of Food
Quality of food is extremely important but you can still put on body fat by eating too much of it. That's why the second pillar is quantity of food. It is incredibly important to know how much you are eating every day. If you never know how much you are eating then you will never know what adjustments you need to make in order to make the changes that you want. There are many different ways to track but for me the easiest to use is the MyFitnessPal app. I have been using it for over 5 years now and I still have no idea how much food I have eaten every day if I don't track it. This is the biggest hole that I see with most people. They really have no idea how much they are eating. A week of consistent tracking is an eye opener for most people. Once they have an idea of how much they are eating then they can start making adjustments
So what amounts should you be tracking? Most important is calories. You want to be eating fewer calories (but not too few) per day than you are burning if you want to lose weight. You should be eating more calories per day than you are burning (but not too many) if you want to gain weight. You should be eating the same amount of calories per day as you burn if you want to maintain. So how do you know? If you track for a few weeks you can find an average calorie per day that you take in. Then you can compare that to your weight change over the two weeks to determine if you are at a deficit, surplus, or maintenance amount. If you aren't losing then you can drop the calories (unless you have metabolic damage from stress/crash diet history, hormones, etc, but that is a discussion for another day). It's that simple. That's why I say you can't make changes until you know what you are consuming.
The other number I think is most important to track is protein. Protein is broken down to amino acids which are building blocks of muscle, which is why it is so important to get protein. Whether you are trying to get stronger or to lose weight and look "toned,” muscle is the key. Muscle is also a sign of a healthy body, it increases your metabolism, it protects your joints, and it has many other benefits(see my previous article on muscle). Most people who I see are greatly under eating protein. A good goal to shoot for is at least 85% of your body weight in grams, up to 100% of your bodyweight or a little more. There is no need to worry about overeating protein because your body will most likely dispose of the rest (as opposed to storing excess carbs or fat). Most people who track for the first time realize they are getting around 50% of their bodyweight in grams or less. These people are struggling to break a plateau because instead of building muscle after their workouts, their body is having to break down other muscle to rebuild what was just damaged in the workout. It is a vicious cycle that keeps you from making progress in the gym or on the scale.
Carboyhydrates and fats are the other two macronutrients and to me the most important thing is to not over eat these. Make sure you are getting enough to fuel your efforts but not enough to store excess fat. Carbohydrate is a fast burning energy source so this should be consumed around your workouts, while fat is a slow burning energy source and should be consumed at other parts of the day. The makeup of these two isn't nearly as important as calories and protein, so the goal here should be to hit your calories and protein numbers for the day and fill in the rest with a combination of these two. (If performance is your goal then getting more in-depth on timing and amounts makes sense here).
Quantity of food is very important. You can make big body changes by just focusing on this (If It Fits Your Macros) but that is not sustainable. You will eventually hit a plateau, not to mention will not be nearly as healthy as you should be. That is why you should focus on quantity after cleaning up your quality of food. One final note on this. Quantity is never going to be an exact science. You are never sure exactly how many calories and macros are in a certain food or exactly how many you burn each day. The best we can do is be as consistent as we can and let it even out over time. There is also never going to be a perfect prescription for you. Numbers are always just a best guess and can be useful but we are organisms that are constantly changing so you can never put too much faith in just the numbers.
The third pillar of a good diet is consistency. You will never make the progress that you could if you aren't eating the right foods in the right quantities consistently. You can put in the work Monday through Friday and give it all away on Saturday and Sunday. A hard earned one thousand calorie weekly deficit can be obliterated at one meal of margaritas, chips, and queso on a Saturday night. That's why it's incredibly important to string weeks of consistency together, especially if you are trying to make major body composition changes. You can tread water for a long time by eating good 80% of the time, but you will never make the big changes that you could unless you are consistent. If you want to make a change to your body then I would challenge you to commit 12 weeks to giving it all you have. You will be amazed by how much progress you can make in 12 weeks. I gave up sugar and alcohol for 90 days to start the year. It really wasn't that bad after a few weeks. If I can do it you can do it! If you are happy with your current body composition then an 80% approach can work great for you. This is sustainable for a very long time and can give you a great balance. Just remember that there are different seasons of our diet life. Some seasons we need to tighten down and be consistent every single meal for months, and some seasons consistency looks like eating good 80% of the time.
So there you have it. The 3 pillars of diet success. If you follow all three pillars then you will have success. The longer you stick to these the more success you will have. Hopefully you will make them each a part of your life so that you don't have to think that hard about it. It's just how you live.