Diet Planning for the Long Haul

Part Three of the Just Suck It Up Series

There are lots of Internet articles on planning a diet for a competition. Many are quite good. But what about those T-men who don't care to compete... or those who are in less intense, "relaxation phases" of the year? This period can't be overlooked because it comprises most of any sane person's calendar.

If bodybuilding is indeed more of a lifestyle than a sport, the majority of us need some diet strategies that stick: weekly and daily plans that can go on more or less indefinitely. Whether one's short-term goal is mass building or leaning-out in moderation, there are some basic behavior modification principles that can help his compliance.

Of course, adhering to any plan calls for a certain level of discipline, so prepare yourself. Ultimately, you'll have to just suck it up and get with a program. Even though there's a ton of learning to be done by reading T-mag, remember: it's not just that "knowledge is power" but that "applied knowledge is power."

Let's take a look at a critical lifestyle planning principle and then dig into the actual diet/lifestyle planning process.

We've all seen the folks who flood into fitness centers in January, riddled with the guilt of an over-indulgent holiday season. They fork-over huge initiation fees to the slick sales people and eagerly jump into six-day-a-week training. They're completely dedicated. But there's one problem. They're gone by Valentines Day.

We've also seen the obsessive calorie counters who focus on "don'ts" rather than "dos", denying themselves by extreme discipline and postage stamp-sized meal portions. This frustrating approach can actually work for a while in the final few weeks of contest prep but it's doomed in the long haul. The ultimate result of such paranoid food avoidance is often either 1.) Behavior that could develop to resemble an eating disorder, with recurring episodes of perceived failure and guilt, even from minor dietary lapses or 2.) A collapse into a series of diet-ending "Fruit Loops frenzies" at a time when metabolism has already slowed to a crawl due to chronic calorie deprivation (e.g. reduced T3 conversion, depressed leptin, some muscle mass loss [5,6]). Not good.

What is these folks' problem? I mean, the January over-trainers and postage stamp self-punishers both clearly have "issues," eh? By now you're probably guessing what set them off on the wrong foot. They've asked too much of themselves too soon. Rarely can people utterly restructure their lifestyle and maintain the change. The more positive approach would be to "keep the change small and repeat it."

For example, if you want to start a training program, limit yourself to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday (or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) regime. If you're new at bodybuilding or have been out of the gym for months, that's enough. Get a training partner for social support (both praise and smack) and to drag your butt to the gym on your scheduled days–barring catastrophe. He can help you suck it up on days of weakness.

In my opinion, a "Push-Pull" regime is a good start: basically it's brief chest and triceps on Day One; brief back and biceps on Day Two; and brief legs on Day Three. Or look up some bodybuilding basics and starter programs here on T-Nation; it's probably best to wait before getting too complex with advanced programs.

If, on the other hand, you're already training regularly and simply want to lean-out a bit, add just 15-20 minutes of non-panting uphill treadmill work, post-workout. That's enough. Be patient; be quantitative by attaching numbers to your goals and be realistic. You can always wait 4-6 weeks to see what's happening to your physique before adding another 15 minutes of "cardio" to each scheduled training day.

Specific to dietary changes, wiser (easier) goals may be as simple as planning to take along and drink a dilute carb/whey beverage like Biotest's Surge during all workouts or eating at least 5 grams of soluble fiber prior to (and with) non-exercise-related meals (7) or keeping an apple, cold protein drink, or hot broth in a travel mug in the car to prevent a hunger-induced fast-food freak out. Eat as soon as you get into the car if you're starving and you'll better resist the call of the grease purveyors on your way home from work.

Let's examine this latter maneuver in particular. It really emphasizes the importance of dietary scheduling and "temporal nutrition" as it were. It can prevent the "rate of feeding" early in a meal, presumably by allowing that 20 minutes or so for the "duodenal fullness reflex" to kick in, and thus decrease overall kcal intake.(4) Plus, eating that apple 30-60 minutes prior to a starchy meal can reduce blood sugar swings ("glycemic response") by 25-27%.(3) You probably recall that moderating blood sugar like this is a logical way to address body fatness. This "dietary preemptive strike" isn't a bad idea for those holiday meals over which you have little control.

Do these individual dietary goals sound ridiculously easy and simple? Good! That's the freaking point! Try maintaining just one for one to two months before adding another: K.I.S.S.

Another way to understand this K.I.S.S. principle is to ask yourself: "Is my planned change something I can maintain the rest of my life?" If it's not, then your physique change won't last either. (Duh.) The wacky mentality exhibited by "dieters" that "Hey, I paid my dues and suffered for a while, so now I expect to keep my new physique even if I return to my old ways" is comical.

Conversely and rationally, I often say to clients that the physique is like a pulled wagon, it just follows you whatever you do in life. If your environment is one filled with every-other-day workouts, meditation, frequent whole grains, veggies, quality proteins, etc., your body adapts accordingly and your girlfriend responds accordingly! If, however, your lifestyle returns to a sedentary, stressed-out, refined starch-riddled debacle, your "wagon" will still follow and you'll end up looking like your pasty, jiggling neighbors! Health and body composition are just side effects of your lifestyle; in fact, lifestyle is the single biggest factor! (1,2)

In a nutshell, the easiest and most convenient goals are those most likely to be successfully repeated. And THAT'S our intent. After a few weeks, these deeds form habits and over time habits harden into character. Ironically, the path to a successful long-term bodybuilding lifestyle is the path of least resistance. Don't set yourself up to fail!

Assuming that your activity levels are well-planned as readers of T-mag, here are three questions to start your stepwise dietary behavior change process:

  1. Is there an evening during the week in which you have an hour to plan groceries for at least one lunch, one snack, and one dinner for the coming week? Write it down.
  2. Do you have a set day for grocery shopping? If so, WHEN and WHAT TIME? Write it down.
  3. Are there times during a typical day when a planned snack (apple, protein drink, whole wheat and turkey sandwich, mixed nuts) can replace an unplanned one (fast food, cafeteria food, household munchies and treats)? Write them down.

That's it... really! Writing things down helps make them "real". This is all about awareness–and some very reasonable time commitments. Now just scribble the times you've considered (above) on a calendar and keep it with you if need be. Learn it; know it; live it. After a month or two you won't have to give it much thought. Often times we meticulously plan workouts in micro-, meso- and macro-cycles but don't do jack about weekly or daily diet planning for the long haul. Sure, we may carefully plan specific diets for a singular, often temporary goal, but again, we're now talking about the long haul. We're talking about modest, realistic things that will harden into fairly effortless habits during the other 40 weeks of the year.

If your diet isn't where you want it, you've got to take that critical one hour of your week to plan your grocery list, keeping in mind quick snacks for car and home. This planning hour precedes your time at the grocery store, which in turn precedes what will be in your home, which in turn precedes what will be at arm's length when that evening temptation will test your compliance with dietary goals. Don't become a victim of circumstance; few normal people, if anyone, can resist tasty, ready, arm's length temptations. The purpose of a schedule, then, is to combat convenience foods, treats, snacks, and fast foods with similarly available healthy choices.

Not to belabor the point, but let's get to the brass tacks. Here's a list of ideas:

  1. Buy pre-cut, pre-cooked chicken strips or a whole roasted chicken at the grocer (caution, this can sometimes be fatty with it's basting and is best reserved for evenings), or cook skinless boneless chicken breasts on a George Foreman-type grill.
  2. Buy and fridge-marinate skinless boneless chicken breasts in freezer bags on Sunday night. You can buy pre-fab marinades in jars. You might also use oil-based salad dressings (look for those high in monounsaturated fats) or mostly dietary oil + acid (e.g. lemon, lime, vinegar), then get creative. It's fast to use (dedicated) scissors and cut off chunks into a pan while a bag of frozen veggies gets nuked. Minutes later you have a fast all-in-one stir-fry meal.
  3. Buy whole grain or flax pasta (Hodgeson Mill has one with 500 mg linolenic acid and 6 g fiber) and cook it Sunday night. Then run hot water over it at mealtime. This is an old restaurant trick and makes pretty good–and instant–pasta. (And you thought that 30-dollar meal last night was fresh-cooked pasta!) Mixing pasta 50/50 with nuked frozen veggies (broccoli, three-pepper blend, Oriental blend, etc.) dilutes the carbs and kcal. Add-in the aforementioned grocer-cooked (roasted) chicken shreds or canned chicken/ shrimp/ artificial crabmeat if you're swamped for time.
  4. On Sunday (or your free evening) buy and hard-boil eggs for salads or snacks later in the week (remove some yolks).
  5. When grocery shopping, buy microwaved oat bran or cold cereal, berries for cereal, skim milk, portable fruit (apple, pear, packaged dates, grapes, banana), portable veggies (sandwich bag of broccoli, mini-carrots + low-fat dip), Low-fat Triscuit-type crackers + hummus or + canned tuna/ chicken (sodium-sensitive persons be aware of sodium content in canned foods), mineral waters, turkey or lean ham lunch meat, low-fat cheeses or mozzarella sticks (PM), potatoes (nuke red for lunch/ brown post exercise), light yogurt with or without granola, 100% whole wheat or rye bread (3g fiber/ slice) for toast and sandwiches, whole wheat tortillas, canned low-sodium beans/ legumes, skinless boneless chicken breasts for all-in-one pan fry meals/ salads (with olive oil), frozen veggies
  6. In addition to higher-fiber breakfast bars/ crackers, keep a small travel cooler in the car to keep skim milk (calcium and protein are both good for fat loss), all sorts of protein drinks (e.g. an instant shake made with Metabolic Drive® and frozen blueberries), cottage cheese (also good for protein drink smoothies), turkey or chicken sandwich on whole grain, etc. Car snacks defend against skipped meals and periods of fast food "weakness" in your daily schedule!

Remember: speed and convenience is critical for healthy meal prep because essentially no one has tons of extra time on their hands, especially when fast/ convenience foods are calling. They're always hot, always tasty, always ready.

So suck it up and put in a little thought ahead of time so you don't have to later. Habits will form. Planning simple, fast dietary adjustments into your schedule puts YOU in control for long term success. Don't let that creepy clown with the red afro make your dietary choices for you!

  1. Bouchard, C., et al. Inheritance of the amount and distribution of human body fat. Int J Obes 1998; 12:205.
  2. Centers for Disease Control, Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Unit. Atlanta, 1989.
  3. Heacock P., Hertzler S., and Wolf B. Fructose prefeeding reduces the glycemic response to a high-glycemic index, starchy food in humans. J Nutr. 2002 Sep;132(9):2601-4.
  4. Kissileff H., et al. The satiating efficiency of foods. Physiol Behav. 1984 Feb;32(2):319-32.
  5. Rosenbaum M, et al. Obesity. N Engl J Med. 1997; 337:396–407.
  6. Torgerson J., et al. A low serum leptin level at baseline and a large early decline in leptin predict a large 1-year weight reduction in energy-restricted obese humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1999; 84(11):4197-203.
  7. Wolf, B., et al. Effects of a beverage containing an enzymatically induced-viscosity dietary fiber, with or without fructose, on the postprandial glycemic response to a high glycemic index food in humans. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;57(9):1120-7.