Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
How to Use the Diet Priorities to Your Advantage:
A large portion of most peoples’ training efforts are directed at the goals of getting leaner, putting on muscle, and any combination of the two. While training is an important variable in the quest for more muscle and less fat, diet has perhaps an even more powerful effect on body composition.
That’s right, what you eat can be more important that how you train in determining how muscular and lean you get. The good news is that the combination of science and the experience of many of the best bodybuilders and coaches has resulted in a rather straightforward consensus on what dietary strategies work the best to grow muscle and burn fat.
While we know pretty well what strategies of diet manipulation work, they don’t all have the same magnitude of effect. Some strategies are critical for any noticeable results, others are important, and others still are just details with perhaps only several percentage points of influence on outcomes. Of course, you can just follow ALL of the strategies (or principles, rather) at all times, but knowing which principles have the biggest, second biggest, smallest effects can allow you to get the greatest results out of your diet even when:
1.) You don’t have the kind of goals that require following ALL principles (i.e. just losing a couple of pounds for a vacation)
2.) You don’t wanna live like a machine all the time. Your goals can be moderately tough, but you’re not comfortable trading off all of your life enjoyment just to get abs or another inch on your arms.
3.) You find yourself in a suboptimal environment no matter your goals, and you can’t dial in your diet perfectly.
What Are the Diet Principles?
There are five basic diet principles of varying impact on diet success. Here they are in order of magnitude:
1.) Calorie Balance: ~50% effect magnitude
– Eating a hypocaloric diet to lose fat, hypercaloric diet to gain muscle
2.) Macronutrient Amounts: ~30% effect magnitude
– How much protein, carbohydrate and fat you take in per day
3.) Nutrient Timing: ~ 10% effect magnitude
– How many meals you spread out per day, whether you time your food intake to activity (workout window)
4.) Food Composition: ~5% effect magnitude
– Protein quality, Glycemic Index, Fat Type
5.) Supplements: ~5% effect magnitude
– Whey protein, glycemic carb supplements, creatine, stimulants, casein
For all of the above principles, there are times when they are absolutely necessary, times when they come in handy, and times when they are needless nuisances. We’ll look at all of them below and try to figure out some basic guidelines as to when they are best used or left out.
For all the below, we assume that you are doing all of the previous ones when we discuss using the next ones down in magnitude. That means if there is a situation where macronutrient counting is possible, calorie balance is also possible and should already have been done. Timing means you’re already counting cals and macros, so on and so forth. The only slight possible exception is that of supplements because they can be so easy to use, but even here it’s usually worthwhile to meet at least the first three principles (calories, macros, and timing) as supplement use has such a small magnitude of effect on body composition change.
When to Use Each Principle
When to use Calorie Balance (When it really matters for results)
If you are making ANY attempt at manipulating your diet for a specific result, calorie balance should ALWAYS be the first priority. Luckily, it’s by far the easiest principle to follow as it only requires, at its basic level, portion size control. Eat less food on a fat loss diet, and more food on a mass gain diet. Traveling in a foreign country, being stuck in an airport, living in a college dorm or military installation, being on a low budget and even a situation where you are a guest and someone else is cooking all allow for portion control and thus calorie control. If you are dieting at all, calories matter the most, and they always matter.
When to count Macros (When it really matters for results)
Once you have your calories set in place (which should basically be under all circumstances remotely within your control), it can become worthwhile to attempt to control how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you’re taking in per day, and in that very order of importance.
Counting macros is worthwhile when your goal isn’t just to lose weight (which calorie manipulations alone do just fine), but to keep as much muscle as possible while doing so. As well, macros are important to track when your attempt to gain is mostly with regard to muscle and not just shear body weight. Counting macros (especially protein) is feasible on most trips, vacations, and inside airports. It’s possible to get mostly right even when living in dorms and eating dining hall foods (eat more meat and less of the other stuff and you’ll get more protein, for example), and it’s absolutely possible on even very low food budgets, as milk, tuna, eggs, chicken, oatmeal, and olive oil are usually some of the cheapest items in the grocery store.
One of the biggest advantages of counting macros is that it can allow you to stay on track to meet your main medium- and long-term goals even if your diet is not ideal for some of that time. This last point is huge. IIFYM works very well. The very biggest and leanest people tend to be the ones that never fall off the wagon completely even during stressful times and travel. Even when IFBB pros guest pose in 10 countries in as many weekends, almost all of them manage to at least get in enough protein, carbs, and calories to meet their general requirements. Even if the details of timing, composition, and supplements are not in place, macros and calories are so powerful together (80% of diet success) that they can keep you on a rough track even when life wants to throw you off.
So next time you’re stuck at the airport, get a steak burrito to begin meeting your protein, carb, and calorie goals instead of having a couple of potato chips and setting yourself back.
When to Time Nutrients (When it really matters for results)
For many goals and many situations, calories and macros are literally all you need. As a matter of fact, and as the IIFYM trend has demonstrated quite well, just counting calories and macros can get people into damn good shape! Nutrient timing is a detail, but one that’s worth following under a couple of circumstances. The first circumstance is when someone is preparing for a competition in any sport, particularly powerlifting, bodybuilding/figure/physique, and even endurance sports.
Because you have to actually compete against others and placing matters, so do details like timing. So if you’ve got a competition coming up soon, timing is almost certainly worth it. Next, timing is also a good idea for those involved in occasional or regular multiple daily workouts. Crossfitters that train 2x per day several times per week need to replenish their glycogen stores as much as possible between the first and second training sessions in order to get the best performance and adaptation. Timing has been repeatedly shown to exert a meaningful beneficial effect on glycogen resynthesis speed.
Lastly, if convenience allows, timing can be followed in any other situation. For example, getting protein in multiple meals throughout the day can be quite easy if batch-cooking is done, or if you’re simply gonna grab a shake or a bar between main meals. If you’re working out on vacation, buy a protein shake and a Gatorade from a convenience store and have it right after your workout… it’s a small difference, but if it’s not too much effort it might be worth it.
When to Control Food Composition (When it really matters for results)
Food composition is a very small detail in the grand scheme of body composition alteration.
There are only a few circumstances in which tracking food composition is a VERY high priority. One of these is the concern for health. The kind of carbs and fats you eat may not have much of an effect on your body composition, but they can sure have an effect on long term health. If health is a high priority to you, eating largely low GI carbs and sticking to mostly mono-unsaturated fats is probably a good idea for the most part.
Another important application of food composition is in the final weeks before a weigh-in for a meet or a stage appearance in bodybuilding/physique competition. This late in the game, certain foods may have different effects on body water, and can thus make your appearance/bodyweight suffer even if your calories, macros, and timing are on the money. Bodybuilders are known to stick to a few very simple, constant foods in the weeks and days leading up to a show in order to highly stabilize their appearance by normalizing their body water. IIFYM is all good, but no one’s gonna eat a pizza the night before a show (unless you sodium load early on purpose).
One final application of food composition control is in its help with cravings. While a cheeseburger a day can fit your macros, it might also be so delicious on a hypocaloric cutting diet that it drives your cravings through the roof and makes you miserable. Eating “boring” foods may actually prevent cravings in the first place, which can go a long way in making a serious diet both sustainable and enjoyable.
When to Use Supplements (When it really matters for results)
Most of the best supplements (as listed in the supplement summary in the “what are the diet principles” section above) are actually quite cheap and usually pretty easy to integrate into a normal daily diet.
However, if you’re bringing protein powders on vacations to all-inclusive resorts and getting searched because the customs guys think you’re smuggling drugs, it’s probably not worth it! Because all of the other principles are so powerful, not using your supplements for a trip here and there is really not a big deal, and is often easily not worth the hassle of packing them and trying to mix them into shakers in the middle of a café in Paris!
Lastly, it’s worth noting that while supplements can be used at all times, it’s a very good idea to get calories, macros and timing in order before you even buy any supplements. If you think you can screw up calories and macros but a whey protein shake outside the workout window can somehow magically save your physique, you’ve got another thing coming. Get the basics down first, then move onto details like supplements. There are no magic pills.
Summary and Implications
Just a couple of points to round out the discussion:
– Don’t overwork yourself on the details, especially when life stressors abound. Get the calories and macros right most times, and save thing timing, composition and supplements when you’re in a conducive setting. Don’t go crazy if you can’t get a workout shake right after a vacation workout…. Just eat food and grow!
– Level of depth of your diet control should be commensurate with seriousness and difficulty of your goals. If you’ve got a show coming up in two weeks, you had better damn well be counting everything and eating boring foods like a perfectly timed machine. If you’re trying to lose that spare tire for beach season or drop 5lbs for a powerlifting meet, don’t drive yourself nuts with details that hardly matter!
– Don’t go the ‘perfection or nothing’ diet route… You can always do your best with any given circumstances, even if it just means calorie control in some occasions. Some people seem to think that if they can’t have their perfectly-measured meals of chicken and broccoli every 3 hours, they might as well be eating donuts and only donuts all day long. This is just completely false and leads to a lot of “two steps forward, one step back” scenarios. Do your best given what you have in front of you, and your goals will be that much easier to achieve, especially in the long term.
Lasty, if you want a very in-depth discussion of the diet principles and the deep science behind them, check out our book “The Renaissance Diet,” available at the JTS store!