A lot of us enter the Paleo nutrition world out of sheer necessity. Perhaps a health condition clubbed you right across the face. Maybe an autoimmune disease was leaving you crippled, desperately looking for answers. Or maybe one morning you just woke up to a real-life zombie apocalypse—you realized that you, and everyone else around you, had the health biomarkers of the walking dead.
My horror story was severe GI distress as a result of poor food choices.
Regardless of the reason, most people who gravitate toward Paleo principles are approaching nutrition from a pure health perspective first, which is the way it always should be. But once these health issues are resolved, there is usually still something lingering in the back of our minds when it comes to our health and fitness plans: higher-level physique goals.
And don’t give me some BS about how you don’t really care about slashing body fat and unveiling a six-pack. C’mon—of course you do. Here in the Instagram Era, we’re all vain pieces of crap. It’s just that you’re not willing to sacrifice your overall health, sanity, career, or social life to get one. And therein lies the problem in the fitness industry these days.
Do You Need Extremes to Live Lean?
Many people are under the false impression that they need to follow a bunch of extreme methods and sacrifice everything in order to slash fat. Perhaps that has to do with a negative association caused by many in the fitness industry who do go about physique transformation in the wrong way, giving it a bad name, and scaring off most normal people from pursuing their goals.
You know who I’m talking about: juiced-up bodybuilders who look jacked externally but are train wrecks internally, and who simply sweep all physical and psychological side effects under the rug; fitness divas who do 25 hours of cardio a day, eat no carbs for months at a time, destroy their metabolism and natural hormone production throughout the process, and somehow think that is normal; etc.
Disasters and extremes get the most media and magazine attention, I guess, but we need to differentiate our method of physique transformation from the ones above. Building a beach-ready body in a healthy way is nothing like the above scenarios, although it often gets lumped into the same category.
A second problem the novice physique-transformation enthusiast faces is that most of the fitness information out there is written without the specific demands and obstacles of the busy professional in mind. Commercial diet books, popular fitness magazines, and online blogs can all be good sources of information, but more often than not, the advice is not practically applicable for most people working a full-time job.
The truth is, you can have a sane and sustainable physique-transformation game plan, and that’s what this article is about. Here are my five top strategies to help get you started.
1. Use Diet for the Majority of Your Fat Loss
There are many ways to skin a cat—or, in our case, peel off body fat. Sure, you could do 20 hours of steady-state cardio a week, plus metabolic circuits on the hour every hour, plus jump around to the latest fat-burning workout like a cheerleader on crack every weekend in order to offset the chronic caloric excess caused by a crappy diet. But that is not the most time-efficient strategy.
Instead, I recommend that the majority of your calorie deficit—and thus your resulting fat loss—come through your diet. It might take a little more planning, but it takes no more time to eat a nutrient-dense, calorie-controlled, whole-foods meal ideal for fat loss than it does to garbage-disposal down whatever the Y2K lifestyle puts in front of you.
And that’s just from a pure time-efficiency standpoint. There are also the physiological, metabolic, and hormonal impacts of your diet and training choicesto consider, which are absolutely critical in determining the long-term effectiveness of your overall plan. In short, those factors yield the same takeaway lesson—don’t try to out-train a poor diet.
2. Make Sure Most of Your Training Is Focused on Building Lean Muscle
If you take the most efficient route, and your daily diet gives you the majority of your fat-loss results, why would you spend endless hours trying to burn fat when you exercise? The answer is you shouldn’t.
Don’t train to “burn calories” or “burn fat.” Train for one reason: to build muscle. Muscle is what provides your body with its shape, definition, tone, and tightness. If you’re skinny with no muscle tone, you will still appear loose, flabby, soft, and unimpressive despite a low body weight. That’s not quite the type of beach body you had envisioned for yourself.
Strength training is far superior to cardiovascular exercise in this respect, and it should be the primary focus of your exercise routine. Two to four traditional strength-training sessions a week with basic free weights should do the muscle-building trick. Even a busy professional can allot that small amount of time and effort toward their physique goals. The rest comes down to eating right.
3. Start With a Moderate Amount of All the Macros
Here’s the truth that many Paleo proponents don’t want to admit: Targeted diet numbers (the right amounts and ratios of calories, protein, carbs, and fats) is by far the most important step to get right in achieving any higher-level physique goal—building muscle, burning fat, and transforming your physique.
How many people who say calories and macros don’t count do you know who are actually as lean as you’d like to be?
The importance of consistently hitting targeted diet numbers for higher-level fat-loss goals is a well-known fact in the physique world. Confusion comes from the fact that improving food choices (i.e., going from a “Y2K” diet template to a Paleo-style template) almost always improves diet numbers. Calories and energy nutrients come down, which facilitates fat loss. Protein goes up and leads to lean muscle gain.
Thus, the beginner and intermediate can get great body composition results with improvements in food quality alone. But it is very rare to reach elite physique levels—especially for most of us with average genetics—without paying attention to food quantity/dietary number details.
The first key to making macros work is achieving an average calorie deficit. Once you are in a calorie deficit, a wide variety of macronutrient amounts and ratios can work well for physique transformation. There are plenty of physique peeps who have gotten into great shape by following low-carb, high-fat diets within the confines of a calorie deficit. There are plenty of physique peeps that have gotten in great shape by following low-fat, high-carb diets. And surprise, surprise, outside of the dogmatic online fitness world that leans to extremes (usually in order to get attention or sell stuff), out here on the real fat-loss streets, there are plenty of physique peeps who have gotten into great shape by following a variety of approaches between those two extremes, with more middle-of-the-road macronutrient ratios.
That moderate approach is where I think most generally metabolically healthy people should start, because that’s where most of the sustainable fat-loss magic lies.
Extreme approaches may work in the short term, but they rarely work as a long-term lifestyle plan due to their associated side effects. For example, ultra-low-fat diets can negatively affect testosterone levels and mood, are too boring and bland (which reduces long-term adherence rates), and make eating out almost impossible.
On the flip side, I believe unlimited-fat diets (i.e., those that say that, as long as you cut carbs, you can down butter and bacon bombs all day) are now the number-one reason why many misguided Paleo proponents are failing to reach their higher-level fat-loss goals. It doesn’t matter if your body is a fat-burning machine if it is only burning excess ingested fat and is never forced to tap into internal fat stores.
Of course, we’ve seen the many body fat and biomarkers of health problems that are associated with overdoing highly refined carbs. But going too low in carbs, especially when combining that eating style with anaerobic training, can have a ton of drawbacks. Many people who eat and train this way experience impaired performance, muscle loss (the skinny-fat syndrome), lowered immunity (do you catch every cold that comes to town?), lowered testosterone (has your nether region been a no-fly zone lately?), impaired thyroid production and metabolic rate, and depression, anxiety, and foul mood.
And contrary to popular bodybuilding belief, protein should be moderate as well. Going too low in protein can lead to muscle loss and constant hunger while in a calorie deficit. But ultra-high protein diets can lead to abnormally high levels of ammonia in the blood, which can lead to chronic fatigue and GI distress.
And keep the following in mind: While both extreme low-fat or low-carb diets can work, neither is necessary for optimal fat loss. One research study showed that ketogenic diets (less than 100 grams of carbs) are no more effective than non-ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets (100 to 150 grams of carbs) for fat loss, but are associated with severe adverse metabolic and emotional side effects.
So moderating carbs (and the other macros)? Yes. Eliminating them? Not necessary.
What do I think is a good ballpark starting point for someone who is strength training two to four days a week as I recommend?
Protein: 0.75 to 1.0 grams/pound of lean body mass or target body weight.
Fats: 20% to 30% of total calories
Carbs: Remaining calories, usually falling within the range of 1 to 2 grams/pound of lean body mass or target body weight
Some people may need to venture off into the outer edges of the bell curve to get results, but why go to those extremes if you don’t have to? Give this moderate approach a shot first, and then test, assess, refine, and adjust as necessary based on progress and feedback.
4. Use a Whole-Foods Foundation
By now you know the importance of “the numbers” for your physique goals. But if you care about the long-term metabolic, hormonal, digestive, mental, and overall health aspects of a diet, I believe good food choices leapfrog to #1A in terms ofimportance. I know I’m preaching to the Paleo choir on that one, but to be honest, I’m more interested in how food choices affect my fat-loss and physique programs.
They have a big impact. Good food choices improve the calorie-to-nutrient–density ratio of your diet and also improve satiety. On the flip side, it is virtually impossible to stay in the relative calorie deficit necessary for fat loss, at least for any meaningful length of time, if you are making mostly poor food choices.
This is where point systems or other calorie-counting diets fail. This is also where I’ve seen extreme “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) approaches fail. You’re not going to be able to stay on a reduced-calorie diet plan for long if you’re eating typical fast and refined foods—even if they are labeled “health” foods.
And this is not just theory. A couple of studies looked at the ad-libitum food intake with a couple of different diet templates. Ad-libitum food intake means the subjects are allowed to eat as much food as they want without any quantity restrictions. Here were the results of those studies:
1. Cafeteria-style diet (can you say Y2K?): based on English muffins, French toast, pancakes with syrup, scrambled eggs, chicken pie, cheeseburgers, margarine, white sugar, various cakes and puddings, apples, jelly beans, Doritos, M&M’s, apple juice, 2 percent milk, sodas, and several other foods.
The average ad-libitum calorie intake over five days was 4,550 calories per day.
2. Mediterranean-style diet: based on whole grains, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruit, fish, and oils and margarines.
The average ad-libitum calorie intake over 12 weeks was 1,823 calories a day.
3. Paleo-style diet: based on lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts.
The average ad-libitum calorie intake on the Paleo-style diet was 1,388 calories.
So we know calories definitely count when it comes to higher-level fat loss. Where good food choices factor in is in terms of auto-regulating that reduction in calories—said another way, good food choices make getting into the calorie deficit necessary for higher-level fat loss a hell of a lot easier, all while ensuring higher nutrient density and lower hunger. This, in turn, makes that approach a hell of a lot more sustainable. Hell yeah!
5. Find a Practical and Sustainable Diet Structure
Diet numbers will have the biggest influence on your body-composition goals. Food choices will have the second biggest influence on your body-composition goals and the biggest impact on the overall health aspects of your diet. Those are the two most important physiological steps to get right in your fat-loss quest.
Where does diet structure—meal frequency and food distribution—fit in? It is the most important aspect related to the practicality of a diet plan. At least that’s what I’ve seen in my private practice over the past decade.
Here’s the truth: Numerous scientific studies have shown that if you eat the same calories and foods, meal frequency is irrelevant in terms of fat loss. That’s really just a geeky way of saying that despite what you’ve heard in the fitness industry, you can get equally good fat-loss results eating six, three, or even two main meals a day.
Since that’s the case, you can build your diet plan around your lifestyle, natural tendencies, career demands, daily schedule, time and food availability, etc. You can make the diet fit your life instead of the other way around. The optimum meal frequency pattern—for you—is the one that allows you to be the most consistent with your diet. Whatever pattern is the most practical, functional, sustainable, and effective for you, given your specific situation and goals, is the best pattern for you. Don’t cling to archaic traditions or modern gurus.
You don’t have to eat six small meals or starve on lettuce leaves at night to get great results. Once people can let go of these myths, most do a lot better with adherence, and thus success rates, by reducing their meal frequency to more normal and doable patterns.
The three-square-meals-a-day approach gets bashed in the health and fitness industry and is often criticized as being counterproductive for fat loss. However, this is most likely due to the fact that the typical Y2K diet is used as the representative of this approach. This is problematic for comparison because these are not the typical meals eaten by someone pursuing fat loss or body-composition transformation. It is more the suboptimal food choices and caloric excess that are the problem, not the meal-frequency pattern itself. Three meals a day can work great for weight loss provided you are making good food choices.
In contrast, the traditional Japanese diet yields some of the lowest obesity and diabetes rates in the world. A three-meal pattern for that would look something like this: eggs and rice for breakfast; chicken, veggies, and rice for lunch; fish, veggies, and rice for dinner.
Both fitness-nutrition spreads and the traditional three-square-meals-a-day pattern can work equally well. The difference? The three-square is a lot more practical for about 80 percent of the non-fitness-professional population. Maybe you should give it a shot. In fact, research shows that three protein-based meals a day is a great strategy for losing fat and maintaining high levels of satiety along the way.
And if our paths happen to cross, and one day we happen to have dinner together, you’d better be ready to Feast Like an Ancestral Beast.
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3. Jonsson, et al. A paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010 Nov 30;7:85.
4. Schoenfeld, et al. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2015 Feb;73(2):69-82. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuu017.
5. Leidy HJ, et al. Influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Sep;18(9): 1725-32. doi: 10.1038/oby.2010.45. Epub 2010 Mar 25.