Welcome back to The 10 Step Checklist For Build a Lean, Strong, High-Performance Body. This is part II, where we break down what you need to do at the kitchen and the table to get your nutrition on point into simple steps. If you missed Part I then you might want to check it out here.
4. Eat protein, and eat enough of it.
Of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins), protein is probably the most talked about but also the most misunderstood.
Basically, protein is primarily a structural macronutrient in that you are made up largely of protein. While it can be used as energy to fuel you, doing so uses a very inefficient system and is a task better left to the carbohydrates and fats.
As far as how much protein do you really need? The answer is, as usual, “it depends”. If you listen to your average bro-lifter who gets his info from the bodybuilding magazines full of glossy, T&A-filled ads for protein powders… the answer is that you need something between a shit-load and the National deficit. If you listen to the random hippy in the health food store then you should be able to get all you need from broccoli. If you find the right hippy they may tell you that all you need to do is smell the broccoli. Trust me, they’re out there.
As I’m sure you realize, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Every day you’re breaking down protein in your body (replacing cells, repairing damage, and so on) so your supply is constantly getting tapped. The issue is that your body doesn’t store protein well, like it does carbs and fats. Well, actually it stores it really well… as muscle. That means that, if you exhaust the “free amino acid pool” (fancy way of saying the limited amount your body does store in the way of non-structural protein), which is pretty sparse, and your body needs some new proteins to help fix something vital (like your eyes or heart) then it’s going to get it. Your muscle is WAY below your eyes on the body pecking order. The problem we have with that situation is that this process of cannibalizing your muscle is very counterproductive to your goals. The protein turn-around to keep you going really isn’t all that much. Probably 50-80g of protein daily will keep most people alive and in a pretty even balance of breakdown and repair.
However, if you strength train or exercise with any intensity then you’re causing muscular damage (that needs to be repaired), burning energy (mostly fat and carbs, but some protein), and also prompting the body to adapt and grow, all requiring more protein to build more muscle and connective tissue. That means you need more than the bare minimum to live optimally.
I recommend most clients consume daily either 0.8-1g/lb of bodyweight if you’re relatively lean or utilize your ideal weight for that number if you’ve got a lot of fat to lose. In other words, if you’re 350 lbs and not a highly-competitive strongman or NCAA/NFL lineman… you don’t need 350g of protein per day.
The vast majority of people err on the side of not eating enough versus too much. So long story short: Take in a good charge of protein several times per day. Your muscles and your physique will thank you. As an added bonus, protein also has a high satiety effect, which means that a high-protein meal will keep you feeling fuller, longer (good when dieting) and help preserve your precious muscle mass (extra good while dieting).
5. Eat vegetables, just like your mother told you to.
If you’re only looking for a quick lean-up for beach season then you probably could end your nutrition discussion then you could probably end your conversation at protein, carbs, and fats.
However, that’s not a high-performance way to live your life and sooner rather than later, it’ll catch up to you in the way of nutrient inadequacies or deficiencies. Despite what some armchair experts in the online nutrition world will tell you, life isn’t just all about fitting in your macros. The micros (vitamins and minerals) matter, too.
With nutrient deficiencies come slower recovery times, a wide-range of health risks, and premature aging. Think that type of thing doesn’t happen in developed countries? Wrong. The vast majority of Americans have at least one, and often several nutrient deficiencies.
Enough to kill you, cause Rickets, or make you lose your teeth from Scurvy? No, probably not.
Enough to limit your performance and have some insidious breakdown of your health? Sure thing.
So, it’s time to become an adult, make your mom happy, and get micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients) and fiber into your life by upping your vegetable game.
So here’s what I recommend: At every meal, add in at least a fist-sized portion of vegetables. In a perfect world you’d hit about 20 different vegetables on the regular to keep variety and make sure you’re getting a mix of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Realistically, if you’re not a veggie person then that is going to seem like a green, yellow, and leafy mountain that’s way too high to climb. So start with a couple of types that you like (peas and corn don’t count, they’re starches) and try a new one every week. If you like it, it goes into the rotation. If you don’t then throw it back for another cooking method or move on.
6. Eat most of your carbs when you work out. Don’t when you don’t.
Among the macronutrients, carbohydrates are the simplest. While protein and fat provide both energy and structure, carbohydrate (with the exception of fiber) pretty much only provides energy. That means that you don’t really *need* carbs in your diet.
With that being said, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat carbs. What it does mean is that you should use them for what they’re good for and not for what they aren’t.
Carbohydrates are basically what the body burns when it needs energy quickly. If it needs a fairly low amount of energy output (low-key exercise, sitting around, daily function, etc) then it can get the vast majority of that from its most efficient source: Fat, either stored or from your diet. However, when the intensity goes up and the body needs to crank up the output, that’s where carbs come in as the primary power fuel. So before, during, and after harder exercise (strength training, hard cardiovascular work, etc) are the times when the body wants to use carbs and when it’s looking for them.
The problem is that the body can only store a little bit of carbohydrate, about 2000-2400 calories, or 500-600g. That’s less energy than most men burn through in a day, even without training hard. A big chunk of that, about 100g worth, is stored in your liver. The liver meters this out bit by bit to keep your blood sugar stable with the primary intention of keeping your brain fed and happy. If the brain doesn’t have its preferred source of fuel (carbohydrate), then it’s going to suffer. *For reference, the other source of brain fuel is ketones (fractured fats), but that’s a little outside the scope of this article.
The rest of your stored carbohydrate, about 400-500g worth, depending primarily on your size, is in your muscles as glycogen (stored glucose or sugar) waiting to serve as ready muscle fuel. Think of this like a battery. When you need the quick hit, it’s there. The only problem is that isn’t that much storage capacity.
So what happens when the battery fills up?
Extra carbs are quite efficiently stored as body fat. That’s right, if your body can’t use them at the moment it seeks to start parking them in long-term storage right where you don’t want them to go.
As an extra kick in the pants, with frequent intake of carbohydrates the body will tend to reduce your insulin (the primary hormone that helps store carbs) sensitivity. You can’t put more energy into the battery after it’s full, right? If you’re eating carbs frequently, which means you’ll have a lot of sugar floating in your blood and the resulting chronically high insulin the body will become less and less responsive to that insulin. Eventually this insulin resistance can put you at risk for some pretty severe health problems such as diabetes.
Our solution is not to go on some sort of extreme, low-carb diet. Instead what works best for our clients at Relentless is to look at carbs as fuel (often tasty fuel, but fuel) and utilize them with some intelligence on days that you’re going to train. Hitting a heavy workout today? Have some carbs before and after. Enjoy them. Not doing much but sitting at the desk all day working your way through TPS reports? Today’s the day to skip the potatoes and keep your carbs to mostly veggies.
7. Eat like an adult. Don’t eat shit that you can’t even figure out what it is.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you need to sell your soul to some sort of dietary deity of Paleo, Clean Eating, or whatever. What I am going to tell you is that you need to take some accountability for the fuel you’re putting into your body and ask yourself if it’s making you better or not.
Lots of people like to jump on some dietary protocol or bandwagon or another because it’s popular, can be charged for, and makes them suffer a bit… which obviously means it’s working, right? While these diets do sometimes work in the short term this type of plan is not easy to stick to in the long run.
I would rather look towards a common sense approach. You are literally made up of and fueled by the food you eat. You take that food from the outside environment, put it in you, and absorb it to make it part of you. Why would you take in a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t even have the faintest idea of what it is? Are a lot of food additives probably perfectly safe? Sure thing. Does past history indicate that the chances are pretty good that some of them that are considered safe now will later be recognized as being toxic as hell? Yep, that sounds logical.
So, eat like an adult. Eat your meats and vegetables. Eat foods with easily recognized ingredients. Limit those foods that have a lot of stuff you don’t know in them. Learn to cook. Learn to enjoy knowing where your food comes from, what it does when it hits your body, and how you can control your physical AND mental state with the food you choose to eat.
Enough nutrition talk! Stick with me for the next article in this series where we start to hit the other aspects of building and conditioning your body, health, and mind through points 8-10. In the meantime, head on over here if you’d like our FREE Healthy Eating Restaurant Cheat Guide or if you’d like to book a Strategy Session!