The Question

What's one of your favorite food-related or kitchen-related tricks? Anything that makes it easier for you to get the nutrition part of the equation right.

Akash Vaghela – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Eat a similar diet every day.

If you're busy and struggling to stick to your diet, it could be that your diet is too varied. While the typical advice is to include as much variety as possible, from a practical perspective it might be the worst piece of advice.

When you wake up in the morning, you shouldn't have to think through which one of twenty options you're going to have for breakfast. Same for dinner. It's a waste of time and only causes you to burn through energy that could otherwise be spent on your more creative and demanding pursuits. If you're wasting mental energy on breakfast or lunch, you're setting yourself up for diet failure later in the day.

There's been research on willpower and two things are clear:

  1. We use willpower to make decisions, focus, be creative, etc.
  2. We only have a limited amount of daily willpower. If you use too much early on, your decision-making becomes skewed and lazy by the end of the day. It essentially cripples your performance.

Now think about when you're most likely to cheat on your diet. It's probably after dinner, right? That's because you've depleted your willpower and cognitive capacity. You've spent all day making decisions at work and handling regular life issues, and now your ability to make quality decisions has diminished.

But what if you already know what you're going to eat? Now there's no risk of choosing something that'll derail your goals. You can just execute the plan. If you can standardize all the "non-creative" components of your day (like meals), you can save all your thinking for other things.

For at least 80% of the time, eat a habitual, standard diet. Use the remaining 20% to be a little more adventurous with recipes, social meals, or dining out. Save this for the weekends though, or periods when you have more time and mental capacity. – Akash Vaghela

Protein Shakes

Tom MacCormick – Personal Trainer, Online Coach

Use protein shakes as a fat loss or muscle gain strategy.

If you want to drop some unsightly blubber, then slam a protein shake before meals. Looking to pack on some size, then have the shake after.

Having a shake about 10 minutes before a meal helps to reduce your overall calorie intake. The shake gives you a protein hit which spikes muscle protein synthesis and you get a little full. Once it's time to eat, your appetite will be somewhat suppressed and you'll have less overall.

To get the most out of this strategy, mix in some psyllium husk or glucomannan with the shake. Psyllium and glucomannan are soluble forms of fiber, which are used as food thickeners. Psyllium also has cholesterol-lowering benefits. Soluble fiber absorbs water. In psyllium's case, it can increase in volume by more than ten times. This drastically increases its volume within your gut and helps to provide a sense of fullness. This minimizes the risk of overeating.

The opposite approach works great for mass gain. By eating a high-calorie, mass-gaining meal first, you can cram in plenty of nutrients. When the thought of shoveling more food down makes you feel nauseous, you slam the shake. Even if you think you can't stomach more food, you'll always have space for a shake.

Take advantage of this fact to pound in extra calories. Rather than adding a fiber source to this shake you can add carbs and/or fat to the mix to bump calories even higher. – Tom MacCormick

Eric Bach – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Set kitchen hours.

The most important pillar of fat loss is creating a caloric deficit. To build muscle, you need to create a caloric surplus. Until you nail energy balance, most other factors of dieting are trivial. Setting hours in the kitchen is a simple way to help you create that deficit or surplus.

Just make the kitchen off limits at some point. Clean up as you cook dinner, eat your meal, then close up shop. Make the kitchen off limits. Setting a stopping point eliminates excessive grazing during your nightly date with Netflix.

To build muscle, just expand those kitchen hours and make a muscle-building dessert. Here's the one I recommend often:

Yogurt Berry Blast

Greek yogurt provides a quick hit of protein and gut-healthy probiotics with minimal sugar and fat, making it a perfect way to kick-off your day. Add a fruit, a raw nut, and you'll have a muscle-building meal with an excellent balance of proteins, fats, and carbs.

Ingredients

  • Plain, non-fat Greek yogurt
  • One cup of berries
  • One packet Stevia
  • 1 scoop vanilla or chocolate protein powder
  • A quarter cup of raw nuts
  • Topper: Shredded coconut or 90% dark chocolate – Eric Bach
Eggs

Nate Miyaki – Physique and Nutrition Specialist

Batch prep your food.

What sounds good on paper doesn't always work in everyday life. The longer I've been in this game, the more clearly I've come to understand a few fundamental principles that dramatically impact the execution of a diet:

  1. Discipline is a finite and exhaustible resource.
  2. Decision fatigue is a real thing.
  3. Convenience improves adherence and success rates.
  4. Automation makes everything easier.

So we could talk about numbers and singular foods and so forth, but what's a higher-level food hack that shifts reliance on discipline and decision making over to convenience and automation? And what will give you a better shot at making your physique-focused plan easier to sustain?

Answer: Never just cook a single meal.

When you actually do have some time in your week, cook a bunch of physique-friendly foods for multiple meals at once. Store the leftovers. The rest of the week can be full of easy and convenient grab and go's, mixes and matches, etc.

Who in today's world has time to cook multiple meals a day made from real, whole, natural, nutrient dense, high-satiety foods? You do. You just don't have time to do it every single day. But you can certainly sneak in an Iron Chef session twice a week – maybe once on the weekend while watching the ballgame and once during the week instead of watching TV.

Efficiency is crucial for normal dudes with a real career and some kind of life outside of fitness. It's even more relevant to advanced lifters in the middle of aggressive fat loss phases, where satiety, motivation, impulse, and instinct are all often heading in different directions.

Now this doesn't have to be just the ol' bodybuilding chicken and broccoli. A wide variety of foods can work in a physique-focused diet. Here are some ideas:

  • Marinate and broil or bake a few pounds of meat. On a nice day, get out there and grill it.
  • Hard-boil a carton of eggs for "instant" breakfasts that have a better protein-to-carb ratio than Fruity Pebbles.
  • Grab a couple bags of potatoes, sweet potatoes, or other tubers and bake, boil, or roast them.
  • Rice cookers are awesome. Get a big one and make a giant pot of rice. Meat and rice has been a foundational physique meal for decades.
  • Pick a few of your favorite vegetables, throw them in a pan, and stir-fry together to bring out the flavors. You don't have to chew on raw celery sticks to get your veggie game on.
  • Hell, throw some veggies and a whole dead animal in a Crock Pot and cook that sucker until it's as tender as a taint after a day with your not-so-friendly neighborhood dominatrix.

You can still add spices, sauces, and extra ingredients to make these more exciting. The base ingredients (meat, veggies, starch) will be ready to go. – Nate Miyaki

Spices

Bri Alexander – Personal Trainer, NPC Bikini Competitor

Find ways to add flavor with fewer calories.

Walden Farms, specifically their chocolate syrup and the maple walnut syrup, has sauces and syrups that are low to zero calories. Heads up though: zero calories usually means artificial sweeteners, which may be problematic if you have certain allergies or digestive sensitivities. Use them in moderation.

Liquid Stevia Sweet Drops are awesome to sweeten items without pouring in sugar, honey, or other things that'll add to your carefully planned calorie count. My favorite flavor is chocolate for my oatmeal and coffee. Add two drops (literally all you need) into your coffee every morning for a mocha flavor.

Also, coconut oil has anti-inflammatory components and maintains its nutrients even when heated at high temperatures. It may help with fat loss since it contains medium chain triglycerides which can quickly be used by the body as energy, instead of being stored as fat. Try a tablespoon of it in your coffee.

Apple cider vinegar is another one that may help with fat loss. It's loaded with antibacterial properties to keep you healthy and the acid triggers enzymes that contribute to breaking down fat and preventing weight gain.

Flavorgod seasonings tend to keep their flavors chemical and filler-free without sacrificing flavor. Their seasonings are unique, like pizza and chocolate donut flavors. – Bri Alexander

Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO

Use the proximity effect to your advantage.

There have been a lot of psychological studies on proximity and diet. Proximity just means how close or how far something is from you.

For example, in one study, researchers placed snacks around a bunch of secretaries in an office setting. Some of the goodies were placed on the secretaries' desks, others in the drawers of the desks, and others in the break room.

You can guess the outcome, right? It looked something like this:

  • Snacks on the desk: Fat secretaries
  • Snacks in the drawer: Less fat secretaries
  • Snack in the break room: Lean, sexy secretaries

If a food is reachable AND in sight, you're more likely to eat it, even when you're not hungry. If you have to work for it – even just by standing up and walking across the room – you're less likely to indulge.

For fat loss, make sure you have to "work" to eat. More cooking, fewer pre-made foods, especially of the junk variety. You want some cookies? You gotta make the cookies. (Make high-protein, no-sugar-added cookies ideally.) Make it a little less convenient to grab foods you don't need. If you have to drive somewhere to get a junk food you're craving at 10PM, you're less likely to do it. Keep the crap out of the house.

On the flipside, maybe you need more calories. I once advised an underweight high school athlete. Lanky kid just "couldn't" eat enough. I told him to keep a can of mixed nuts in the drink holder in his car. Every time he was in the car he had to eat a handful. Kid gained a lot of muscle in one summer.

Proximity and visibility can also help you take your supplements correctly and regularly. I often joke that if Biotest came up with a supplement that could make you put on 8 pounds of muscle a week, BUT required you to take it two times per day, most people would never gain that muscle. They'd remember one dose but forget the other one. No consistency.

Here's what I do. I put all my supplements for the day in a container that sits right out on a counter I have to walk by several times a day.

Supplements

The container is visible and reachable, so I never miss a serving. – Chris Shugart

Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director

Set meal planning on autopilot.

Figuring out an effective diet plan is the most confusing and most common obstacle preventing people from seeing results. Make things more manageable by simplifying as much as possible.

One of the best ways to do that is to take your brain out of the equation by removing some choice in the matter. By paring down your options and relying on a fairly repetitive menu, you not only remove the issue of constantly recalculating your daily macros, but you automatically bolster adherence because willpower against temptation isn't an issue.

You might decide that breakfast is either "four eggs, a handful of spinach, and one slice of toast" or "oatmeal with a scoop of protein and a handful of blueberries." That's it. Done deal. You'd sooner squat on a Swiss ball than stray from the plan. Grabbing a McGriddle on the way to work or, worse, having nothing for breakfast, is simply no longer an option.

Whether you're trying to put on size or drop fat, come up with one or two (three at the most) options per meal that fit your goals, write them down if you have to, and then make your number one nutritional goal sticking to that list. Why? Simple. Making fewer decisions means less chance of making the wrong decisions. – Chris Colucci

Amit Sapir – IFBB Pro, World Record Holder Powerlifter

Drink your food.

This is especially important for those trying to build muscle. Here's why:

Workout Nutrition

What you consume around workouts is the most important nutrition of your day, whether you're trying to gain muscle or lose fat. Around workouts, you want to consume what you can absorb easiest and fastest. That's why solid food isn't generally ideal.

So if you're trying to build muscle, then about 60-90 minutes before training have 1-2 scoops of Metabolic Drive® Protein. I combine that with 8-10 egg whites, a half to one full cup of oats or rice powder, one tablespoon cashew butter, and some berries. Adjust this protein shake (and the amount of stuff you put into it) according to your goal.

Throw it all into a blender with some ice and you got yourself a pre-workout meal that takes about a minute to make and another two minutes to drink and you're ready to rock.

During your workout, consider your next meal Plazma™. What rock have you been living under if you're not using it in your training? Nothing even comes close. Then have Mag-10® about 15-30 minutes post session. Get your workout nutrition in with the best timing and best absorption you can ask for.

Have a Protein Shake

It'll keep you from skipping meals or eating something worse. On a busy day it's easy to just pull out the blender and have a protein shake. A handy shake can prevent you from getting fast food or skipping a meal. If you skip a meal then come home from work famished, you may be tempted to overeat the worst things. So a fast protein shake is like physique insurance.

It's easier to get more calories in if you need to. When I tried to get the biggest I could be, I had to eat 8 meals a day to reach my macronutrient goals. Just the thought of eating more rice or potatoes would make me nauseated. Who wants to eat super clean 8 times a day anyway? Shakes are what saved me.

I'd have 8 scoops of Plazma™ during training sessions (and even just throughout the day) to keep getting more quality carbs and protein in. This allowed me to be consistent with 800-1100 grams of carbs a day and 350 grams of protein for most of my gaining season. For someone who doesn't like to eat a ton, it was priceless. And I grow better on liquid food than solid food. – Amit Sapir

Flameout

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Use apple cider vinegar and omega-3s for insulin sensitivity.

One of the most effective things you can do to optimize body composition is improve insulin sensitivity. If you're more insulin sensitive, it'll be easier to build muscle and lose fat.

Insulin is a storage/anabolic hormone. Anabolic means "to add." It's released mostly in response to an increase in blood sugar. We could say that insulin is triggered by the need to lower blood glucose back down to normal levels, and it does so by favoring the entry of glucose (and other nutrients) into the "storage facilities" like muscle cells, fat cells, the liver, and brain.

As such, if you're more insulin sensitive, you won't need to produce as much insulin in response to an increase in blood sugar levels, and if you're resistant any increase in blood glucose can really jack up insulin release.

This is important because the more of a hormone you produce or release, the longer it'll take for that hormone to go back down to baseline levels.

Insulin being a storage hormone directly increases storage of nutrients into the various reserves, including fat cells. So if insulin is high and there's a lot of fat present at the same time, you'll increase fat storage.

The other part of the equation is that elevated insulin reduces fat mobilization. As long as insulin stays elevated, you'll be inefficient at losing fat. If you're more sensitive to insulin, you don't need to produce as much to get the job done, which means it doesn't stay high for as long and you can spend more time being in a fat loss state.

One simple thing to do to optimize insulin sensitivity is to take apple cider vinegar and omega-3 fatty acids about 15-20 minutes before your meals. You don't need much. A tablespoon of vinegar and half a dose of Flameout® prior to any meal containing carbs is all you need.

If you want your body to do an even better job at improving insulin sensitivity, take Indigo-3G® in the morning. This supplement significantly and rapidly increases insulin sensitivity. And even more interesting, it improves insulin sensitivity selectively in muscle cells, meaning that your body will more easily store nutrients in the muscles rather than fat tissue. – Christian Thibaudeau

Cookers

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

Get a Crock Pot and a Le Creuset Dutch oven.

If you have any desire to improve your health or body composition you'll need to be kitchen savvy. That's why I consider these essential.

The Crock Pot costs about $25, and in my house it remains perpetually on. I fill it with marrow bones and water and use a coffee cup to scoop out my bone broth – something I drink each morning and evening for the minerals and collagen. The broth also readily turns into a meal with some added veggies, shredded chicken and, if I'm dieting, a serving of Miracle Noodle.

The Le Creuset Dutch oven is a big, heavy, cast iron pot. It's not cheap, but the thing will last forever. I'll toss in carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, and chicken breasts on a Sunday afternoon. Say goodbye to dried-out chicken. The radiant heat makes for moist, perfectly cooked food that I'll separate out into several meals for the upcoming week. It makes planning for weekly meals simple. – Mark Dugdale

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