6 Ways to Improve your Diet Through Science
By: Brad Dieter, PhD
Read Time: 8 minutes
Science has taught us a lot about diets over the past few years. Here are 6 tips to help you improve your diet that we have learned through science
1) Match your diet to your goals
Before we even dive into the science based things we have to talk about the most basic principle. In order to be successful you need to match your diet to your goals.
Someone who wants to put on 20 pounds of muscle clearly can’t adopt the 1500 calorie a day, low-protein vegan diet and expect to pack on lean tissue. Alternatively, someone who is attempting to lose 100 pounds can’t adopt the 5,000 calorie a day “bulking” diet.
This is one of the main reasons why we believe that diets are tools and there isn’t a one size fits all approach.
The first step is to be honest with yourself about your goals and find the approach that is suited for that goal.
2) Find the diet framework that fits your lifestyle
A diet should be like a good pair of jeans. They fit well, you can wear them anywhere, and you literally never have to change them or wash them (seriously, I wash my jeans like once a year. . . TMI??). But you and I aren’t going to buy the same jeans. I might prefer a more dressy style, darker wash, and a much different cut. Plus with my weirdly proportioned body I sure as heck won’t be wearing the same size as you.
Paleo, Keto, Atkins, Ornish, Mediterranean, IIFYM, (Insert whatever other diets have sold amazing best sellers). They all have pros and cons. You can have success with each of them, or you can have complete utter failure. The real trick is finding the framework that fits best with your lifestyle, food choices, and that matches your goals.
If you are a someone who trains 10+ hours a week, lifts heavy, runs fast, wants to compete in performance based competitions, and enjoys potatoes, pasta, and sushi, going Keto probably is going to be a giant pile of suck. Now if you train a couple times a week, are pretty sedentary the rest of the time, and naturally eat a lot of meat, veggies, and high fat foods (i.e. almonds, avocados, butter, etc.) then “going Keto” might actually be a good dietary strategy for you.
The key is to realize that each of these diets is a tool. They should be selected for the right job. There is no universal diet that we should apply to every individual. You are going to get the best success with the one that fits you the most.
When you really dig into the studies that look at successful outcomes from diets, the number one factor is dietary adherence. So find what you can stick to!
3) Focus on total calories
After dietary adherence, the single biggest factor to consider is total calorie intake. The science is pretty darn clear that whatever “metabolic advantage” might be present in the shifting of macronutrients pales when comparing its effect to total calorie intake*.
If you want to put on muscle you need to consume more than you are expending on a consistent basis. One day a week just won’t cut it. You are also going to want to train your face off to make sure those calories are going toward building tissue; you need that muscle building stimulus.
If you want to lose weight make sure you are expending more than you are consuming on a consistent basis. Now this isn’t saying weight loss is simply eat less and exercise more (it is often way more complicated than that as Dr. Spencer Nadolsky has articulated quite clearly), but that caloric deficit is essential to losing weight.
4) Make protein your priority
One of the things that is becoming more clear with each study that is published is idea that protein plays a pretty big role in nutrition. Having adequate protein appears to help control appetite better than the other macronutrients in most people. It appears to help reduce the loss of lean muscle tissue during weight loss phases and it also appears to be more important as we age.
A good range for most people to aim for is between .7-1.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight depending on your goals, body composition, weight, and training style. The average person can usually default to 1 gram per pound of body weight or 1 gram per pound of their goal weight (hat tip to Alan Aragon for the second recommendation) as their starting point.
5) Focus on the big picture, don’t get lost in the details
We all like to find the secret, the one tool, or the one “hack” that will get us results.
For example, timing your macronutrients throughout the day to “leverage” insulin signaling or doing intermittent fasting to maximize your “fat burning” periods. For probably 97.328% of people these things are actually minutiae.
Things like these are the equivalent of missing the forest for the trees.
Study after study after study has shown that the minor changes in macronutrient timing, meal frequency, or any of those others things are not really what is driving success or failure of people’s nutrition plans and reaching their goals.
It is the bigger picture items that bring results: total calorie intake, matching your diet to your goals, getting the right amount of protein, fitting your diet to your lifestyle.
Before you go down the rabbit hole of all the small details, dial in the really important things. You will be more successful and far less stressed out.
Honestly, I have gotten way better results when I stop focusing on the minor details and just focus on the important things (total calories, protein, and the right macros for the lifestyle I live). Plus I am also a lot less of a jerk about food when I am with family or out and about town. Being less of a jerk is also probably more important than 7% body fat (they aren’t mutually exclusive but you get the point)
6) Consistency is critical
Real success requires consistency. Consistency does not mean just a month of being on point. For most of us, myself included, it requires months and years. Sure, you can see progress in 30 days but it is going to take much longer than that to really achieve the goals you want. There is a reason professional body builders are not teenagers or people in their twenties.
Success is the accumulation of work. Unfortunately we generally only see the result and the success, we don’t see the years of work that went into that success.
Plus, let’s be real for a minute. If getting the body/health/strength/fitness that you wanted was as simple as a 30 day fix, you probably wouldn’t being pining after it. I think one of the real reasons people want those bodies, that health, the strength, or the physical ability is that they know it reflects a lot of hard work.
You’ve got to get a plan and follow it consistently for an extended period of time. 40% of the time isn’t enough. 60% of the time isn’t enough. You have to consistently be on point.
If you want to put on 20 pounds of muscle you need to be in a caloric surplus for months on end. You also have to be putting in the work in the gym. If you want to lose weight you have to develop habits that promote a deficit (yes, that can be a challenge) that is sustained over more than a week or even a month.
* I mean let’s not kid ourselves on this topic, if you take an honest look at the cumulative research on the topic it is pretty darn clear that IF there is any real “metabolic advantage” or “hormonal optimization” of certain macronutrient ratios or dietary frameworks the effect of that is tiny when you compare it to dietary adherence, caloric intake, and caloric expenditure. I am incredibly open to this not being the case and if there is compelling data to suggest it is please let me know. If I could eat an extra 1,000 calories a day, keep my expenditure the same, and not see any negative results I would be the first person on board. Give me the jar of peanut butter so I can go to town.