Do you struggle with healthy eating…because you’re not quite sure what that means?
Maybe your doctor told you that you need to lose weight.
Maybe you’re sick and tired of being the self-deprecating big guy/girl in your group of friends.
Maybe you just had your first kid and realized you need to be there for him growing up.
Maybe you woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and finally came to the realization that it’s time to start taking care of yourself.
Whatever your reason is for wanting to make a change, you’re not alone! Every day, thousands of people make the decision to start eating better and losing weight…and every day those thousands of people don’t really have any plan or idea what they’re doing.
After all, there are so many freaking decisions to be made:
- Should I follow the food pyramid?
- Should I be counting all of my calories?
- What about “heart healthy” whole grains?
- Should I do this juice diet all of my coworkers are on?
- How many Twinkies can I fit in my mouth?
Fear not, for Nerd Fitness is here! (This is where the Nerd Fitness theme song would play…if we had one).
Today you’re going to learn the basics of a healthy diet so you can stop sucking and start living better. This is a relatively long article (3500+ words), so feel free to wait until you’re on you’re lunch break to really dig in…or just shun your work for the next 30 minutes and enjoy. Tell your boss you’re leveling up your life…he’ll understand.
Combine these diet tips with a fun strength-building routine and you’ll be shouting “THIS IS SPARTAAAAAAA!!!” in no time…or whatever else you prefer to yell while kicking people down bottomless wells.
The Nerd Fitness Diet Philosophy
If I had to break down the Nerd Fitness Diet into a single sentence, it would go something like this:
“You’re smart and you know what real food is, so stop eating crap.”
You know what real food is: things that grew in the ground, on a tree, came out of the sea, ran on the land, or flew through the air. Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts are all great examples of REAL food.
On top of that, you know what crap food is: food that comes from a drive-thru window, a vending machine, box, bag, or wrapper. If it has an ingredient list longer than A Game of Thrones, it’s probably not good for you. If it started out as real food and then went through fourteen steps to get to the point where you’re about to eat it, it’s probably not good for you.
Use this information and combine it with this mantra: “you can’t outrun your fork“. When trying to lose weight, feel healthy, and get in shape, 80% (not an exaggeration) of your success or failure will come from how well you eat – which is why this point is one of the cornerstones of the Rebellion.
Eat more real food, you must. Eat less junk food, you will.
I realize this concept is nothing new or revolutionary, but up until now the ability to actually DO IT has eluded you for some reason – your heart wasn’t in it, you got sick, went on vacation, got bored, or just decided that you couldn’t live without certain foods (SPOILER ALERT: you can).
I am NOT a fan of “diets”, detoxes, juice cleanses, or crash-fads that result in vast fluctuations in your body weight and health. These are the useless solutions that are sold to you in pill form, in MIRACLE DIET INFORMATION ads online, and in super expensive health food stores.
You are smarter than that.
Want to know what I am a fan of? Small changes that produce big results, like my boy Optimus Prime. You need to determine for yourself how likely you are to succeed depending on how many changes at once you can deal with: Some people can radically adjust everything they eat overnight and have no adverse effects. Other people wouldn’t dream of giving up certain foods and the second they go more than a few days without it they become Crankenstein.
That choice is yours. You need to determine:
- How averse are you to change?
- How much weight you think you need to lose?
- How quickly you need to lose that weight? (wedding? honeymoon? vacation?)
- How likely are you to stick with your changes?
Like playing a video game, you need to determine what level of difficulty you’re up for. Sure playing on Difficult gives you less room for error, but it also hones your skills far more quickly and produces more impressive results. Or maybe you’re cool with playing on easy, because you don’t have to be as neurotic and can have more fun with it.
Decide what method works best for you based on how radical of a change you’re chasing. Just don’t overdo it – small permanent successes will beat out massively ambitious failures 100 times out of 100.
Committing to change
If you are just eating better because somebody told you to or because you think you should (but don’t really have a real reason)…every day that you deprive yourself of your favorite foods will seem like torture – you’re going to fail miserably.
Instead, look at the changes you’re making to your diet as small steps on the path to a leveled up live. You’re not depriving yourself of junk food because you want to suffer, but rather because you want a better life, a happier existence, and/or because you want to set a good example for your children.
As self-help guru Tony Robbins once said (I think it was him anyways): “nothing tastes as good as looking good feels.”
It’s time to give up that instant gratification you get from eating a donut, a bag of chips, or six slices of pizza.
You are not a slave to your taste buds.
As we’ve learned from the Matrix, you DO have a choice – stop letting the food companies, who have all designed these crappy foods for maximum addictiveness, hold you hostage.
Free your mind, free your taste buds.
[I can’t believe I just typed that. Wait, yes I can.]
We’re not looking for instant gratification. We’re looking for a long life full of epic winning.
Eating for dummies
Okay! You’re finally ready to start making some changes, but you’re not quite sure what you’re going to change or how you’re going to change it. Hopefully you passed basic math back in the day; if you didn’t and you made it this far in life…I’m not even mad, I’m impressed. Anyhoo, remember this basic equation:
- One pound of fat = 3500 calories
If we do some complex synergistic rocket geometric algebra here, we can determine that 3500/7 = 500.
That means that if you are interested in losing ONE pound per week, you need to be eating 500 less calories per day (or burning 500 calories more per day). Optimally, your 500 calorie deficit per day would come from a combination of increased exercise and decreased calorie intake, but lets just say for today that you’re going to focus on eating 500 less calories per day.
“But Steve, how do I do that?”
Great question, thank you so much for asking!
I HIGHLY recommend you spend the next three to four days tracking your calorie intake. And when I say track them, I mean track EVERY FREAKING THING YOU EAT. Yeah, those handful of M&M’s you stole off of Milton’s desk at work count. So does that half can of coke you found in your back seat cupholder from last June. So does the handful of french fries you stole from Paul while he was in the bathroom at MacDonald’s.
But counting calories is boring, right? And who has time to calculate all of that? Right? Luckily, there’s this thing called the Internet – sign up for Dailyburn.com or the DailyPlate, input your food and it calculates all the calories for you!
Now, once you have a few days under your belt, take a look back and determine an average for what you’ve been eating and how many total calories you’ve been eating daily.
To lose a pound a week, knock 500 calories out of that diet per day. If you want to lose half a pound a week, knock 250 calories out of your diet per day. It might mean one less snack, ordering a smaller lunch, or cutting back on soda (liquid calories are BRUTAL). Note, if you track calories for a few days and you don’t lose weight, you’re probably underestimating or underreporting how you much food you eat.
Your body DOES obey the laws of thermodynamics (energy in, energy out), and your metabolism isn’t slow! You’re simply eating too much. I promise! Take 3 minutes to watch this if you’re convinced your metabolism doesn’t operate like normal:
A quick note: if you are used to eating 4,000 calories a day, switching to 2,000 per day will probably make you want to gnaw your arm off – instead, slowly decrease your calorie intake by a few hundred calories each week. Think of your stomach like a muscle that needs to be trained – it needs to learn that it can function and operate on way less food than you’ve been giving it.
This is the easiest method of weight loss – you still get to eat all of the same foods, you just have to adjust how much you are eating. Unfortunately, this method also produces the least optimal healthy results in my opinion, but it’s a great place for a newbie to start taking control of his/her eating.
Quality of Calories
Once you’ve learned how many calories you’re consuming, you might start to see a few pounds disappear, but its just a step in the right direction. Hopefully this won’t come as a shock to you, but 2000 calories worth of gingerbread cookies doesn’t fuel your body the same way 2,000 calories of meat, vegetables, and fruit would.
Not all calories are created equal!
Your body digests certain types of nutrients differently, using them for all sorts of bodily functions: building muscle, transporting nutrients, fueling various organs or muscles, or storing energy as fat for later use. Let’s take a look at how to compose a basic meal:
Protein: When you exercise, your muscles are broken down and then use protein to rebuild themselves stronger while recovering. Protein absolutely NEEDS to be a main component of every meal. Aim for one gram per pound (two grams per KG) of lean body weight, or just do one gram per pound of body weight if you don’t want to do the math – with an upper limit of 200 grams. Sources of protein include chicken, eggs, beef, pork, fish, nuts, legumes, quinoa, and most dairy products.
Carbohydrates: When you eat carbohydrates, they get converted to glucose (sugar) in your system, which is then used to provide energy for all sorts of body functions to take place. Vegetables and/or fresh fruit are quality sources of carbohydrates, with grains being less so in my opinion…but we’ll get to more grains later. There are certainly bad carbohydrates (processed carbs, refined grains, and more), and those are the ones we want to avoid. Unless you’re a marathon runner, you can function with WAY less carbs than you’re probably consuming now.
Fat: Fat is easily the most misunderstood macro-nutrient in your diet; long story short: fat is absolutely critical to your body and should make up a BIG portion of your daily calories. Things like avocados, almonds, olive oil, walnuts, and almond butter are great sources of healthy fat (polyunsaturatured and monounsaturated). If you take this stance on saturated fat (personally, I do), then full fat milk, coconut milk, and fatty cuts of meat will provide you with sources of saturated fat.
The first thing I want to make sure you know is that the fat in your food is not what made you fat. It wasn’t until the past 40-50 years that poor fat was suddenly vilified (after a few scientific leaps of faith with no real evidence to back it up), which is why every “healthy” food these days is “low fat” or “fat free!” Not surprisingly, our country is fatter and more unhealthy than ever, and yet people still avoid fat at all costs and consume more “healthy whole grains!” (ugh).
So what IS making us fat? Simple, refined, and/or processed carbohydrates! Rather than spend thirty minutes typing it out, I’d recommend instead that you spend three minutes to watch this video to show WHY excessive carbohydrate consumption can make you fat:
Why you got fat (video)
For more in-depth reading on this subject, I highly recommend checking out Why We Got Fat by Gary Taubes, also the author of “What if it’s All Been a Big Fat Lie,” an must-read article that blew the doors off my thoughts on healthy back when I started my education.
So, if you’re looking to kick start your weight loss journey with healthy eating, start by swapping out processed refined carbohydrates for more natural foods. Depending on your level of commitment and your ability to handle change, you might be better off making one small change every other week rather than a whole bunch of changes simultaneously.
You’re making permanent, lasting changes in your diet and your life…better to take it slowly and be successful than to try way too much at once and fail miserably.
The Glycemic Load
At this point, you’ve learned that you need to be eating a healthy portion of protein and fat with each meal. As far as your carbohydrate sources go, we’re going to get a little help from our friends, the Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL)…who I feel needs a WWE theme song because they sound like some crappy tag team.
No clue what those things are? Don’t worry:
“Not all carbohydrate foods are created equal; in fact, they behave quite differently in our bodies. The Glycemic Index describes this difference by ranking carbohydrates according to their effect on our blood glucose levels. Choosing low GI carbs—the ones that produce only small fluctuations in our blood glucose and insulin levels—is the secret to long-term health reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes and is the key to sustainable weight loss.”
The GI is a scale of 1-100, with 100 being the fastest and quickest impact on your blood sugar level, and 1 being the slowest impact on your blood sugar level. By choosing foods that are lower on the glycemic index, your nutrients are delivered more slowly to your blood stream, which means they’ll provide a slower/longer source of energy, produce less of an insulin response (you did watch the video above, right?), and create less of a crash that causes your body to crave more carbohydrates!
Now, the GI DOES NOT factor in serving size. For example, watermelon has a GI number of 73, and milk chocolate has a GI number of 43. So should we be eating chocolate all day long and avoiding fruit? Nope, it’s because the GI number is based off of 50g of total carbs of each type of food. You only have to eat 3 oz of chocolate to get to 50 grams of carbs, while you need to eat 1.5 pounds of watermelon to get 50g of carbs.
Luckily, the Glycemic Load factors in serving size along with the glycemic index. Processed foods, refined carbs, and sugar all have high glycemic loads, while fruits and vegetables generally have low glycemic loads. This is the info that we’ll be using to our advantage.
Rather than print out every single piece of food and it GI and GL, I’d rather keep things simple. Focus on eating foods with LOW glycemic loads during the day, and only eat carbs with HIGH glycemic loads immediately before a workout – they’ll be burned immediately as fuel – or directly AFTER a workout along with protein – they’ll get used to refill your muscle’s fuel stores rather than stored as fat.
Search for whatever carb you’re eating here to see it’s glycemic load.
Foods above 55 are considered to have a high Glycemic Index, and foods above 20 are considered to have a high Glycemic Load.
If you are familiar with Tim Ferriss’s “The Four Hour Body” – his Slow Carb diet is based around this concept.
***If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, then this is the path that I’d recommend for you – cut back on grains and crappy carbs, load up on vegetables, nuts, beans, fruits, and some low-glycemic grains if you’re running low on calories, and make sure you’re getting enough protein!
Now, this method of eating requires a little bit more effort, as you’ll be restricting yourself from eating certain foods and you have to spend time researching which carbs produce what type of response in your body. However, it’s a huge step in the right direction towards healthy eating, and you’ll generally have more success with losing the right kind of weight when combined with strength training – burning fat and keeping the muscle you have.
The Paleo Diet
If counting calories and not changing what you eat is at one end of the spectrum, then the Paleo Diet is at the complete opposite end of that spectrum: no calorie counting, but extreme restriction on what you can consume.
This is one of those diet that people either love or love to hate: it seems far too restrictive for some, while for others it’s the only way that they can find success. I’ve already covered this diet EXTENSIVELY with the Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet.
In a nutshell, eat as if you were Fred Flinstone, consuming only foods that existed way back in the day:
Eat this: meat, fowl, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils.
Don’t eat: anything else.
Boom. No calorie counting. No perfectly timed meals. Only eat the stuff above, and eat as much of it as you want whenever you’re hungry.
In my opinion, due to the nature of the diet and how counter-intuitive it is to what’s considered a “healthy diet” (and I use that term loosely) these days, it can be quite difficult to stick with a Paleo diet. This is especially true if you have to eat out, your family/friends don’t eat the same way, or you travel a lot. However, if you can manage to stick with the diet and build healthy habits, you’ll have the best possibility to see the best results.
For example, my friend Saint spent two years restricting his calorie intake and running more without getting the results he wanted. It wasn’t until he went 100% Paleo and started lifting weights that his body fat percentage dropped down into the single digits. Staci, our resident powerlifting superhero, also credits her crazy success with the Paleo Diet and heavy lifting.
So, this is the most “difficulty increased” diet out there, but it can also produce the most drastic results and healthiest benefits. If you need to lose a LOT of weight quickly, or if you are interested in getting down into extremely low body fat percentages, the Paleo Diet is your play – just make sure you have the ability to say NO to a lot of foods throughout the day.
So what’s the best one?
I’ll give you the same answer that I give people when they ask me “what’s the best workout plan?” The one that you’ll actually stick with! Us members of the Nerd Fitness Rebellion are in this for the long haul, so we pick diets that work for our particular body type and situation because we know that they’re diets that we can stick with.
We have thousands of people following the principles of the Nerd Fitness Academy – not because it has some super secret workout or magic bullet diet plan, but because it has a plan for people to follow – they stuck with it, followed the blueprint consistently for months, and not surprisingly saw awesome results!
No matter what type of healthy eating diet you choose, be it counting calories, vegetarian, vegan, glycemic load, or paleo diet, you are going to have the most success with the one that you can actually stick with. For that reason, I recommend that people start slow at the easy level until they have a good level of knowledge about how their body adjusts and what portion sizes are. At that point, they can determine how invested they are in making changes:
- If you want to be healthy and get down to a healthy weight – I’d push you towards the glycemic load type of eating. Avoid foods that cause insulin spikes in your system, cut out as much junk as you can, and focus on the good stuff.
- If you want to look like my buddy Saint – then I’d push you towards the Paleo Diet with a few warnings: to get to that low of a body fat percentage, you need good genetics, a strict workout routine, patience, and the iron will to say NO to foods that aren’t on your list of approved foods.
Determine what level of commitment you are comfortable with, and then make adjustments based on that. Before you discredit or dismiss any of the advice above, I recommend you spend 30 days trying it out for yourself before passing judgment – question everything, and come to your own conclusions.
Making it All Work
“Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Teddy Roosevel
If I had to break down my personal diet philosophy, it would be a combination of the previously mentioned Paleo Diet along with these two quotes. I tend to eat Paleo for around 80% of my meals, I eat the best I can when traveling which is frequently, and then I eat whatever the Hell I want 10% of the time. I might eat pure Paleo for three straight days, and then for two nights in a row I’ll eat pizza and chicken wings while drinking beer while watching football.
I have absolutely NO problem with this, because I found a method of healthy eating that works for me. I know that one meal doesn’t define me. I know that a weekend of poor eating doesn’t throw me off track. I know that a vacation where I’m going to enjoy myself for a few days (which I’m going on next week) is NOT the end of the world.
I do the best I can, with what I have, where I am.
I also know that I only get one chance on this planet, so I’m going to have some fun too. I eat what makes me happy occasionally and then go right back to healthy eating because I want to become the best version of ME that’s possible.
I encourage you to do the same – do the best you can and have fun! Make small, permanent changes that you can live with until they can become habit, and then pick another small change to tackle. Don’t feel guilty about a bad meal or an unhealthy weekend. Pick right back up where you left off as soon as you can, and continue living your life.
How can I help?
Why not start today? Clear the junk food out of your cabinets. Take the candy jar off your desk. Remove the temptation, and pick one habit or two to remove from your diet. Start making changes. The more drastic the change, the higher the possibility for drastic results, but the higher likelihood that you’ll fail as soon as you hit a bump in the road…so balance these changes with your personality. You might stumble a few times before you find your stride or you find a method that works for you.
Failing or stumbling is okay, as long as you get back up and try something new.
So what other questions do you have about healthy eating? How else can I help you level up your life?
Leave your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
PS: If you struggle with healthy eating and want a leveling system that speaks your language, check out our flagship course, the Nerd Fitness Academy, that covers all of this stuff in a fun way, along with boss battles, levels, quests, and a supportive community.