When to Eat Delicious Food and When to Avoid It

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Knowledge is power. No matter how seemingly overused this statement is, it still retains its validity. Knowing more makes nearly every realm of practice more effective. Knowing more about recovery can let you heal faster. Knowing more about strength training can make you stronger. But more knowledge doesn’t only make you more effective, it can make most any process easier than it otherwise is. In strength and physique sports, the promise of easier accomplishments has an interestingly mixed reception. While most people will be happy to integrate strategies into their approach that make the process easier, some will insist on keeping hard things hard. This latter view rests largely on the idea that training and dieting for sport should be as much mental training as it is physical and that the difficulty of the task is not something to be avoided but rather embraced.

While I can’t do justice here in debating the merits of making or keeping sport preparation intentionally difficult, I think that most of us can at least agree that strategies to maximize the ease of training and dieting can be very useful. This is true especially if they are applied in such a way as to allow the process to become more effective because it is now easier to accomplish. For example, having a gym three minutes away from your home definitely makes getting there easier than if it’s an hour away. But that proximity means you’re going to be hitting more cardio sessions, possibly splitting up your workout into multiple sessions per day to raise average intensity, and be able to train more days than otherwise, all of which benefit your results, not just the ease of use. In much the same way, something quite simple with the fancy name of the “Food Palatability-Reward Hypothesis (FPRH)” can make your dieting for body composition not just easier, but that much more effective.

What is the Food Palatability-Reward Hypothesis?

Here’s some very deep and thorough science on the FPRH.

The practical definitions of the link above can be summed up as the following:

– Foods range on a spectrum of palatability. Some taste crappy, some taste OK, and some taste amazing.
– Foods that are more palatable tend to be those you want to eat more of.
– Not only do people tend to want to eat more of the most palatable foods, these foods also generate cravings more often than less palatable foods.
– Highly palatable foods generate cravings especially in a hypocaloric dieting state.
– Highly palatable foods are more prone to being those foods that are overeaten to generate a hypercaloric state.

What makes foods more palatable? Well, personal preference certainly weighs in, but on average, some common factors most people include:

– Foods well-seasoned with spices and herbs.
– Foods with the right amount of salt (not too much, not too little), though this usually means on the high end of salt consumption for most people.
– Sweet foods which are high in sugar or sugar substitutes, even artificial ones.
– Foods that have a pleasant texture and mouth feel, often correlating strongly with foods that are high in fat.
– Very savory foods (really a combination of mostly fat and salt content in addition to mouthfeel and texture, some additives like MSG can enhance this sensation).

The big implication of the FPRH is that tasty foods are much easier to eat in excess and much harder to eat in small quantities. On the opposite end of the palatability spectrum, foods that taste plain, boring, or downright bad (while being safe to consume and not be spoiled or past due) are tolerated much better in smaller quantities, and can in fact have almost no effect on food cravings whatsoever even in a hypocaloric state. These implications can be applied to enhance the processes of massing (putting on muscle and fat at the same time) and cutting (dropping fat while attempting to retain muscle) to make them not only easier, but more effective.

FPRH When Massing

The typical mass phase should usually be run for about 3 months and be programmed for an average gain of 1lb or so per week, with up to 2lbs per week of gains for those weighing much more than 200lbs. This duration and rate give both the adequate time and stimulus for appreciable muscle gains. Fat gains are unavoidable, but can be dealt with later during a cutting phase without much risk to muscle loss in most cases.

Eating a hypercaloric diet (more calories consumed than burned) is by definition a prerequisite for all of massing, but for two reasons, this process becomes much harder in practice the longer a mass phase progresses. First of all, your metabolism speeds up with time in a mass phase, both because you keep weighing more and need to feed that much more tissue and because prolonged periods of hypercaloric dieting speed up thyroid activity and boost the metabolism. Many a reader will no doubt recall massing phases during which the only activity required to get a sweat going was the eating of a meal! The second reason that massing can get quite tough towards the end is that prolonged exposure to a hypercaloric diet usually results in an appetite decrease. Yes, willpower can overrun much of this effect, but it’s not all fun and games when you’ve got two chicken breasts, a bowl of rice, and four tablespoons of peanut butter staring you down and you already feel like throwing up before the first bite.

Late in massing so far seems to be quite a bind. Your metabolism is the highest ever, you need to eat the most ever, and you’re the least hungry you can remember. I remember times massing during my early twenties when I would legitimately FORGET how it felt to be hungry. All the while, the bodybuilding magazines keep pushing the same bland food. Chicken, broccoli, rice, olive oil, etc. It’s a tough road to travel! So tough, that some lifters will cut their mass phase short even during times of great progress simply because they can’t stand to stuff themselves any more.

Luckily, the FPRH is here to help. We already know that calories and macros are by far the most important ingredients to the success of a diet, and that with proper timing, the only real question is of food composition. Where you get your protein, carbs, and fats is only responsible for maybe 5% of the variation in outcome from a diet, with supplements rounding out another 5% (more info on that HERE). This means that if you choose to eat DELICIOUS food (perhaps even just some of the time, not all of the time) during your mass phase, your results will barely be affected, so long as your calories, macros, and timing are in order…  even if that food has poor composition (junk food, for example). But it turns out that tasty food doesn’t usually even have to have to be junk! There are plenty of cookbooks and suggestions on how to make absolutely amazing-tasting food that’s right in line with the best standards of food composition. Using seasonings, salt, and proper preparation strategies can make food taste absolutely great, so the days of bland baked chicken and broccoli can be left behind. By jacking up food palatability, you can much more easily get in the calories and macros you need and even look forward to doing so, resulting in more goals achieved and more muscle added, period. Great tasting food helping with muscle gains? Tough to argue.

Here are some tips on enhancing food palatability on your mass phase:

– Use herbs and spices to season your food.
– Cut meats up or buy ground meats for easier eating with less chewing.
– Use plenty of salt if you’re not salt sensitive and have good blood pressure. This is most of the fitness community, by the way.
– Learn how to cook, or pay someone who does to help you.
– Eat out on occasion. Gaining mass while eating out is super easy and fun – just make sure it fits your macros, and you’re golden.
– Try some of these foods: low fat chips, sauces and gravies, frozen yogurt.
– Stick to foods that have low volumes after cooking. 80g of carbs from seasoned rice can fit into your hands. 80g of carbs from oatmeal can only fit in an NBA player’s hands and takes seemingly an hour to eat.
– Up the variety. Use couscous, pasta, potatoes, make whole grain bread sandwiches. Add mushrooms and onions and garlic to foods. Don’t just eat brown rice and lean turkey… there will be plenty of time for that on the cutting phase!

Especially towards the end of your massing phase, integrating the advice above can make food taste great and make you wanna eat it. This can lead to the weight and muscle gain you desire while also allowing you to enjoy life. When you’re ready to cut down, things will change.

FPRH When Cutting

Cutting phases designed to spare muscle can usually be implemented for around 3 months and be paced to drop 1-2lbs of weight per week, with most of that (if not all) being fat if hard training and intelligent dieting principles are applied. When you start dieting, dropping weight is easy. Your metabolism is high, and cravings are few and far between. And hey, you’re still eating tons of food. But as the cut progresses, things get tougher. The chronic hypocaloric environment slows down your metabolism, leading to the need to eat less and less food to keep the same loss rates coming. All the while, hunger is creeping up and food cravings are becoming more frequent, especially for tasty food items that were your best friends at the end of your last massing phase.

The good news is that the flipside of massing recommendations apply. By eating boring, bland, simple, and downright unappetizing foods, cravings can be reduced significantly. The interesting thing about high palatability foods is that if they are consumed on a hypocaloric diet, they often lead to more cravings in the individual that just ate them, not fewer. For example, you’d normally have two cheeseburgers and be stuffed and happy, cravings no more. But two cheeseburgers simply don’t fit into your macros deep into a cut, especially not with any remotely sensible considerations for timing (eating only two cheeseburgers and then drinking casein shakes the rest of the day is not something we’ll seriously consider). You eat the one cheeseburger, and now your cravings are even worse. If only you had another cheeseburger! For many people toward the end of their cutting diets, staying mostly or wholly away from highly palatable foods can put them into a state of low cravings, as there’s just nothing in their food environment to trigger any. Not only do bland and unpleasing foods work well here, but voluminous foods as well. Nothing makes you wanna NOT eat like chewing down a dry chicken breast with plain oatmeal and a load of broccoli. That meal can take so long to eat, you don’t even look forward to eating anymore, which is exactly where you wanna be at the tail end of a cut (certainly much better than having constant food fantasies and wild cravings).

Some tips on reducing palatability:

– Avoid using herbs and spices. Use salt (you need it for physiological function), but that’s about it.
– Eat tough meats that you have to chew up, avoid ground meats that can be eaten quickly and easily.
– Put your super culinary skills on hold and try to make food that doesn’t taste great on purpose. When you think about it, that’s actually a kind of skill itself!
– Deep into the cut, don’t eat out. Restaurants make it their mission to provide you with the tastiest possible foods. Even the smells are tough to deal with and can cause massive cravings.
– Try some of these foods: celery, broccoli (uncooked), oatmeal (unflavored), dry chicken breast, canned tuna, egg whites, fat free unflavored Greek yogurt, fat free cottage cheese, unseasoned tilapia. YUCK.
– Stick to foods that have high volumes after cooking. Sweet potatoes, oatmeal, brown rice, etc…  many typical bodybuilding foods.
– Keep the variety, but keep each option boring. Only in your most dire moments will you be excited about the switch from broccoli, oatmeal, and chicken to kale, brown rice, and dry fish.
– Drink plenty of water and eat lots of high fiber foods. The combination expands your gut and makes you feel fuller longer.
– Fruits can be a great carb source because of how many you have to slog through to get your macros in. 100g of carbs from mashed potatoes is gone in 10 minutes and can leave you craving more. 100g of carbs from apples takes seemingly forever to eat.
– Look up foods high on the satiety index. Eat more of those to fill you macros.

It must be noted that while low palatability foods are great at suppressing short-term cravings, they might not work so well in the long term. Very restrictive diets might cause rebounds in the long run, so might best be avoided for sustainable eating. Luckily, cutting phases are by definition short-term endeavors, and using low palatability foods especially during their tail ends might be helpful. That last part is important: Eat tasty (or at least normal) foods through as much of your cutting phase as you can. When your cravings start to really push you, that’s the best time to reduce palatability for the remainder of the diet. If you like to plan far in advance, just reduce palatability with each several weeks of cutting. It can be brutal to go through with, but it sure beats crazy cravings.

The use of the FPRH allows you to be hungrier when you need it and less hungry when you need that. Some people are totally fine with a bit of tasty food and it actually eases their cravings even in a hypocaloric diet. Some people are not as swayed by taste in either direction and can both pound food when needed and not be swayed much by cravings. Especially if dieting is not yet extreme and cravings not crazy, palatability may not matter much for some people. However, if that’s not you, then you might want to give these tips a shot on your next massing or cutting phases!

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Born in Moscow, Russia, MIKE ISRAETEL is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant  to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”

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DR. JENNIFER CASE holds a PhD in Sports Nutrition and  is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri, where she teaches exercise prescription, functional anatomy, and other Kinesiology courses. A former MMA Fatal Femmes World Champion, Jen is the current IBJJF Master/Senior World Champion in the Purple Belt division, both for her weightclass and absolute. She is currently a Brown Belt under Jason Bircher at KCBJJ (Renato Tavares Lineage). When Jen is not teaching, training or competing, she likes to spend time with her friends and beloved pets (2 cats, 2 dogs), and has been described as “the most world’s most bad-ass butterfly enthusiast” for her perennial attendance to many of the nation’s top butterfly exhibits. 

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