The Best Laid Plans...

The road to hell, just like a well thought out diet, is paved with good intentions. It doesn't matter if you're cutting, gaining or maintaining, there are pitfalls lurking around every corner which can wreck the best intended plans. Even though most of us consider ourselves well-informed and well-read individuals, there are times when we all drop the ball as far as our diets are concerned.

Unlike sedentary individuals, bodybuilders think of dieting simply as a tool used to support their personal physique goals. To us, dieting is a way of life and it only represents a particular moment in time. Dieting isn't necessarily a bad thing per se, but it can turn into the mother of all evil if not practiced consistently, consciously, and methodically throughout your bodybuilding years. From time to time we all slip up, cheat, and just flat-out give in to the wrong kinds of temptation. Where we go from there is up to us.

There are probably a billion ways to wreck a diet, but in the interest of brevity I've chosen to focus on ten of the most common dieting mistakes seen in bodybuilding circles, some of which may surprise you.

1) Relying Too Much on Thermogenics

All too often, thermogenics (fat burners) are used as a crutch for poor food choices. Quality thermogenics work, but they can't make up for a poor diet.

Have you ever seen anyone pop a couple of fat burners right before sitting down to an all-you-can-eat buffet, or even follow a breakfast of cream filled cupcakes and a soda with a fistful of some caffeine/ephedrine product? This methodology never works out; the world's best supplements will do nothing for you if you don't take the time to get your own house in order first.

While well intentioned, fat burners, in my opinion, have taken a turn for the worst. Slick marketing, half-truths, and an overall media blitz depicting "easy" or "quick" results using these products has mislead many an individual into thinking that a pill can pay penance for their past and/or current dieting sins. Hey, if it were that easy then all of America would be lean and chiseled, yet we all know obesity is at an all time high.

The primary purpose of thermogenic agents was never to make up for a crappy diet, but rather to enhance fat burning of an individual who had everything else already dialed in. Anyone who thinks differently will no doubt be disappointed. Don't get me wrong, fat burners definitely have their place, especially as a pick-me-up for those grueling leg training days, for mental enhancement before athletic competitions, and for cutting that last ounce of fat off your love handles when dieting alone can't do the trick. But they aren't magic.

Do yourself a favor: save the fat burners for when you're willing to put in the effort and have the discipline to control your food intake rather than to have your food intake control you. After you accomplish this step you'll be amazed at how well thermogenics can work for getting you closer to your personal best.

2) Following Someone Else's Diet

Most of you are probably experienced enough to know that following the diet of a pro-bodybuilder or an elite athlete probably won't work for the average Joe. In fact, anyone with average genetics who's not using buckets of steroids will surely get fat trying to eat like their favorite pro, and that's probably not the brand of "big" most are shooting for.

But did you know that blindly following any diet without first modifying it to suit your needs can lead to failure?

I see this mistake nearly every week, but what most people don't realize is that they have no one to blame but themselves. Unless you're new to the iron game you should already know that you must match up a diet plan with your personal goals, your body type, your metabolism, and your activity expenditure. (Of course, if you're a newbie you're better off sticking to the diet as written. It'll take some trial and error to find out what works for you in the beginning.)

A host of personal factors (genetics) and environmental factors (stress) can make or break the best laid plans. Never assume that just because your favorite guru said it worked for one of his trainees that it'll automatically work for you.

Also, keep in mind that every guru writes programs with a personal bias. Those who were hardgainers may suggest a large amount of calories in their diets which may not be appropriate for your metabolism. The opposite is also true. A person who's been fat in the past may be more cautious about carb intake when writing a diet. That may be just what you need – but maybe not!

The real "secret" here is that you must maintain some form of record keeping for long term success (more on this topic later). You need to note how your body responds to macronutrient ratios, feeding frequency, training volume (both aerobic and anaerobic), and recovery methods. Obviously, if you're not getting the results you expect its time to shift gears and make some adjustments. Most importantly, you should note for future reference what's working and what you don't want to repeat.

3) Not Getting Enough Water

How much water did you drink today? If you can't answer that question, then most likely it wasn't nearly enough. If that's the case, you're surely slowing your training progress and performance.

Think about this: your muscles and brain are 75% water, blood is 82% water and your lungs are 90% water. By volume, a 200 pound bodybuilder is composed of over 60 quarts of water, of which 10 quarts may be used per day of heavy training. If you're serious about your training, you can expect to fully replace your entire water store within a week's time. (Colgan, 19)

Athletically speaking, the primary purpose of water is to maintain cellular hydration which in turn can increase muscular endurance and thus overall performance. In addition to aiding in the digestion process, water has the ability to rid your body of toxins through dilution and flushing of your cells. It also acts as a cooling agent to keep your internal temperature in check. (Misner, 2)

Okay, now before you put this article down and immediately commence to sucking down a couple of quarts of good 'ol H2O, there are a few things you need to know. Water should be consumed continually throughout the day, with meals, before working out, during your workout and immediately after your workout. Remember, to maximize performance you must not allow your cells to enter a dehydrated state.

Exactly how much should you consume is an ongoing debate, but in consideration of your weight, calorie expenditure, activity level, and lean body mass vs. fat mass we can come up with a few guidelines. At a minimum you should be consuming 64 ounces every non-training day and 128 ounces every training day. As previously discussed, your mileage may vary, so individualize!

I often get asked if sports drinks, fruit juice, coffee, tea, or diet Coke can substitute for water. My response is not only no, but hell no! (Oh yeah, before any smart ass e-mails me and asks if beer counts, that answer is also no.) Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages probably do more to dehydrate you rather than to hydrate your cells regardless of how much you slug down, and pre-sweetened drinks can wreck havoc on insulin response if not timed correctly.

It's not that these other beverages should always be avoided, it's just that they don't count towards daily water intake. In fact, you should augment your minimum daily water intake if you consume alcohol, caffeine, or thermogenics. Add at least half a glass of water for each serving of these items.

There's a caveat about water that's rarely discussed: purity. Have you ever heard of cryptosporidium, carbon tetrachloride, or trihalomethane? Most likely you haven't, but your liver has. These contaminants are the byproducts of water treatment used to kill off bacteria growth and all of them have been linked to cancer, low fetal weight, central nervous system defects, and cardiac damage. (Turner)

If you're lucky enough to escape consuming these invisible compounds, don't think you're out of the woods. A host of toxins, including geologic mineral deposits, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and even water additives like fluoride and chlorine will likely whack performance at some level, and this is only the beginning. (Downey)

On average, most local water authorities test for around 35 different toxins, which isn't even a drop in the bucket (pun intended) when you consider that there have been over 60,000 identified potential poisons lurking in municipal water supplies throughout the US. (Colgan, 21) Unfortunately, most water jurisdictions don't have the available resources, training, and equipment needed to test for more than a handful of these little bastards.

There are two good options here to avoid 95% or more of potential water pollutants: distilled water and reverse osmosis filtration. You could install one of those home filtration kits, but be on the lookout as a good filter is also a costly one. Generally speaking, if a filter only costs a few bucks, then it'll only filter out a few of those nasty impurities. If you're going to lay down some hard earned cash, you should find a filter that's certified by the NSF (see for further research) and be sure to read up on the actual impurities which a particular filter can destroy. (Schardt)

I have a tough time suggesting any of those fancy-schmancy bottled waters. Most bottled waters are nothing more than conditioned tap water. (Schardt) Some have minerals added to them, others are carbon filtered to remove any odors, but all pale in comparison to distilled water. They usually run about a dollar for a pint whereas a gallon of distilled water can be had for about 75 cents at any grocery store. Read the labels, then do the math.

One last thought before any nay-sayers start chiming in about the lack of minerals in distilled or filtered water. If you're using water to get your daily supply of minerals then think again brother, because you're sadly missing out. The only way to get a complete day's supply of vitamins and minerals is to supplement. No water source will do this for you.

In short, find a clean source of water and drink lots of it.

4) Eating Infrequently

Want to know a great way to pack on some extra blubber? Just wait until you're hungry to eat. I know more people who, in an effort to lose weight, wait as long as they can between meals to cut down on calorie consumption. Big mistake! Soon they fall victim to binge eating as their hormones kick it into high gear at the mere sight of food.

You need to be eating about every 3.5 hours from now until the end of time (except when you're sleeping of course). This habit will help you to maintain consistent insulin levels, reduce binge eating attacks, help you to better assimilate nutrients, and keep your energy levels consistently high; more so than eating a diet consisting of "three solid squares a day" (Alesi, 85).

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to eat throughout the day and not skip any meals. Done correctly, this practice will no doubt raise your resting metabolism and help your body burn fat more efficiently. It's as if you're constantly keeping your internal fire stoked. The key reason why the traditional "diet by deprivation" doesn't work is that repeated bouts of fasting condition your body to enter a starvation and preservation mode, thus becoming highly efficient at storing fats.

For those of you who don't think your body can handle five or six meals a day or don't think you have the time to eat that often, eat smaller meals but more often, precook and prepackage several meals at a time, and use meal replacement powders (MRPs). Once you get in the groove of eating on this schedule, it'll become second nature.

Here's an experiment for those who are still unsure about eating often. Immediately upon rising (before you even get out of bed), take your waking temperature and record it. Practice eating every three to four hours for a week and then take your waking temperature again. You'll probably notice a rise in temperature which indicates your metabolism is on fire. And fire burns fat, no question about it.

5) Misuse of Cheat Meals

As many recent T-mag articles have illustrated, an occasional cheat meal or cheat day can be beneficial for physiological and psychological reasons. But don't go nuts!

All too often dieters take a little bit of good advice and twist it around until it's no longer beneficial. For example, if a cheat day with several "bad" meals or carb-filled meals is good, then a cheat meal every day is even better, right? Wrong. And dieters know this. It just seems that hunger and cravings can sometimes overpower rational thinking!

By dispersing your cheat meals throughout the week you inadvertently spike your insulin too many times to consistently stay in a fat burning zone, and thus signal the brain that it's time to release insulin and store some fat for future use. Frequent and incorrectly timed insulin spikes can lead to insulin resistance and that will keep your abs covered in a permanent layer of goo. By now most of us know that the only time we want to spike our insulin is immediately following a workout. Of course, this insulin spike should be accompanied with protein if your goal is to ultimately build mass.

So, cheat meals are okay sometimes, but keep yourself in control, okay?

6) Believing Everything You Read on Food Labels

I have to admit these marketing whores have done their homework in finding out how to work around the system. Ever wonder how non-stick cooking sprays can be labeled as "fat free" when they contain nothing but oil? Two words: serving size. According to the labeling laws, a food can be labeled as fat free if the serving size has less than .5 grams of fat. That's while the serving size of those cooking sprays is often a ridiculous one-third of a second spray, which is almost impossible to do. Pretty sleazy, eh?

Here's another one: volume. Again according to the labeling laws, fat content can be listed as a percentage of overall volume (Alesi, 51-52). Poultry and beef are notorious for being sprayed down with water to increase their overall volume. As you know, water has no calories so if you up the serving volume with a no-calorie additive like water you can decrease the fat volume to the point that it looks good on the label. The same thing is done with some "fat free" milk, which often contains plenty of fat, just not per serving.

And while we're on the fat-free wagon, just because a label says it's fat free doesn't mean it's good for you! Sometimes the fat is simply replaced with massive quantities of sugar.

Just pick up a bag of fat-free cookies and read the ingredients. How far do you think you can take your physique with this type of food?

The list doesn't end there. Carbs are also mislabeled. You've probably read numerous times that protein bars commonly advertised as "low carb" often contain glycerin, an alcohol sugar. Again the labeling laws protect the producer and not the consumer in that alcohol sugar content doesn't have to be added to carbohydrate totals (ConsumerLab, 2). While alcohol sugars and "regular" carbs aren't exactly the same thing, your body may not be able to tell the difference.

While we're on the subject of alcohol sugar, next time you read the label on a bottle of beer, maybe you can tell me how they can list 110 calories per serving with a content of less than one gram of protein (four calories), less than one gram of fat (nine calories) and less than one gram of carbs (four calories). I'll give you a hint: alcohol sugar. If you're on a low carb "keto" diet and think you can have a couple of beers and still stay in ketosis, think again. You've been duped, brother.

Also watch those serving sizes. A food may look healthy until you realize it contains twenty servings per package (and you could eat the whole package in one sitting with ease).

Other key words to avoid are "processed" and "cured." It's perfectly acceptable for a food manufacturer to base their label claims on a food analysis conducted before it's processed or cured. Heat can alter fats and protein for the worse, seldom for the better.

The real key to food selection is to keep it simple and first look at the ingredients before looking at the nutritional information. Ingredients are listed in order of total volume from the greatest to the least. If the first ingredient is lard, hydrogenated oils, sugar, or a word you can't pronounce, it's a good clue that this food isn't supportive of your long term goals.

7) Lack of Meal Planning and Inappropriate Timing

Once you learn what to eat and what to avoid, you can further your progress by planning your meals appropriately. There's no better time spent than pre-planning your meals.

While opinions vary on this topic, here are a few general rules concerning meal planning and timing:

Finally, the worst thing you can do when trying to lose fat or bulk up is to not have a plan. Luckily, T-mag has dozens of diet plans to choose from and one is sure to fit your needs.

8) Fear of Dietary Fat

Personally I'm glad the 90's are over. All the low fat and no-fat diets that we were led to believe were good for us, well, weren't. All I remember is feeling tired all the time.

On paper these diets sure looked good and in actuality they weren't that hard to follow. Since most good tasting foods are carb laden anyway, giving up fat wasn't that tough. One problem though – beyond about two weeks these diets sucked big time. Ask anyone who tried these diets about how their strength and energy levels were and they'll tell you they were less than optimal. Additionally, it was hard to gain any noticeable quantities of mass, no matter how intense your workouts were. Oh well, live and learn, I guess.

The good news is that we're much smarter today than we were a few years ago, thanks in part to Udo Erasmus, the "father of fats." If you haven't read Udo's book Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill, then you'll have an epiphany of sorts within the first fifteen minutes of reading. Nearly everything we've been told in the past about fats is dead-on wrong!

Udo's theory (as well as other fat researchers) is that there are basically two classes of fats: "Fitness Fats" and "Misfit Fats." The so-called Fitness Fats are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's), which our bodies can't make and of which 99% of us are grossly lacking. The Misfit fats are those that are processed, commercially heated, or fried. These "Misfit Fats" often occur as trans fatty acids and take the form of margarine, shortening, and even some peanut butter. What's particularly disturbing is these misfit fats make the already existing shortage of "Fitness Fats" even worse (Erasmus, 1)

"Misfit Fats" are notorious for increasing insulin resistance, slowing down energy production and performance, increasing your risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and decreasing natural Testosterone. On the other hand, "Fitness Fats" reduce catabolism (muscle wasting), improve reflexes, speed recovery through healing, increase internal thermogenesis, improve insulin sensitivity and, get this, have also been shown to improve protein metabolism (Erasmus, 1-4).

The real question for health is, how much of these EFA's do you need? Admittedly, it's difficult to answer, but Udo's recommendations range anywhere from 2-5 tablespoons every day of an appropriate EFA-rich oil with a 2:1 ratio of omega 3's to omega 6's.

In summary, not all fats are bad; don't leave the "good" fats out of your diet. Take fish oil capsules, flax seed oil, Udo's Choice, or Biotest's upcoming supplement in this genre. You'll be pleasantly surprised how fat can help you with your physique goals.

9) Not Keeping a Food Log

A diet without a food log is like J. Lo without a big caboose. If you're not going to log your food intake (calories and macronutrients), then don't bother asking me or anyone else for diet advice. It's that essential!

How can you expect to improve if you don't know what's previously worked well for you and what mistakes you keep repeating that need to be halted? It never ceases to amaze me that bodybuilders will go to meticulous lengths to plan a workout, record the details of each lift, but fall flat on their faces when it comes to logging nutritional data.

In short, keeping a daily record of what you eat will keep you on track, keep you honest, prevent cheating, and provide motivation and feedback. T-mag published a great article called The Missing Ingredient that you should check out if you've never kept a food log.

You don't have to keep a food log forever, but spending ten minutes a day on one for a few months will teach you more about how your body reacts to dieting than a lifetime of "hit or miss" eating strategies.

10) Ignoring the Effects of Carbs and Insulin

Absolutely no discussion of dieting can be complete without discussing insulin and carbs. I think carbs and insulin mystify the bodybuilding community more so than anything else.

If you take nothing else from this segment, know that the primary purpose of insulin is to facilitate the storage of nutrients within the body, not to aid in glucose disposal. Yes, partial glucose disposal is a result of insulin secretions, but by understanding insulin's primary role as a storage mechanism, you'll begin to understand the basic premise behind this mystical hormone and be able to better apply it to your advantage in fat loss and mass gains.

Several years ago we all followed the dictum that simple carbs were bad and complex carbs were good – a gross oversimplification as we've come to understand today. In addition, little was discussed pertaining to insulin and its anabolic properties. Much more relevant to training today are the issues of carb timing, quantities of carbs ingested, and the insulin response to carb types ingested.

Before we begin our discussion, note that unlike protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fats which are used for growth and repair, carbs are primarily used for short term fuel. Basic biochemistry tells us the primary fuel for exercise is adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and the body is much more efficient at making ATP from carbs than it'll ever be at making it from fat (Colgan, 95-96).

It's true you can condition your body to burn fats for fuel once you've depleted glycogen stores, but in consideration of purely performance related issues, carbs are king. The dark side of carbs is if not properly understood, they can also do more damage to your physique than a tornado can do to a trailer park.

For a while it appeared that the development of the Glycemic Index (GI) would take all the guesswork out of which carbs we should or shouldn't eat. As a refresher, the GI is basically a scale of how fast carbs enter the bloodstream as glucose. High GI values (>70) could illicit a quick infusion into the blood and hence a large insulin burst. Low GI values (<55) were considered to be slow releasing and thus insulin response was much less than the higher aforementioned GI values (Brand-Miller, 1, 3). Sounds pretty easy so far, but wait, it gets a bit more perplexing.

Further research showed that despite the GI rankings, there were still some foods which measured relatively low on the GI scale but also caused a large insulin burst. In addition, the GI lists values for ingestion of single foods, rather than food combinations, which is how most meals are structured.

Lastly, the GI is also based on a fifty gram serving of food, which usually isn't how foods are consumed in a single sitting. For instance, fifty grams equals one small bag of fries at your favorite fast food restaurant, one small potato, four small onions, five cups chopped green peppers, or fifteen cups of sliced cucumbers. When was the last time you only ate a small bag of fries? And does anyone actually eat fifteen cups of cucumbers in a single sitting?

While the GI now appears to be a crude measure of insulin response, it laid the foundation for the Insulin Index (II). The II is a measure of the direct insulin response of food ingested (Coleman, 1). It separates itself from the GI in that it's more useful when combining different food sources in a single meal. More importantly, when considering the total carb load of a meal, it helps predict how an individual will respond in terms of insulin response.

For example, whole wheat bread measures approximately 60 on the GI, but what do you think would happen if you ate five or six slices with every meal? Just because it's relatively low as far as carb GI rankings are concerned, it doesn't mean you can eat all you want and not cause your insulin to go whacko. You have to not only consider the GI ranking, but also you need to keep in mind the total carb volume you ingest. This example illustrates why we need not only the GI but also the II.

Used together, the GI and II indices can help you plan meals according to your needs (i.e. high or low insulin release). For instance, if you're trying to get lean you'll want to keep insulin at bay most of the day except immediately after training when you want to spike it through the roof to shuttle glycogen and protein back into your starved muscles.

In this scenario you'd eat a combination of low GI and II foods throughout the day. If, on the other hand, you're trying to bulk, you'll no doubt want to spike insulin several times throughout the day along with a generous helping of protein.

Just how many grams of carbs you need a day for optimum performance is a debate that most likely will never be settled. It's largely a matter of individuality and I'll harp on this topic one more time–if you're keeping a food log it'll be much easier for you to answer that question than any of your favorite diet gurus. A couple of points to remember:

Summary: Carbs can be tricky. Eat them wisely and time intake appropriately based on your goals.


I could list a dozen more ways to wreck your diet, but I'll keep the list to an even ten. The rest you can probably figure out with a serving of common sense and a side order of rational thinking: two items every dieter should consume in large quantities!

Works Cited

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Colgan, Michael. Optimum Sports Nutrition. New York: Advanced Research Press, 1993.

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Schardt, David. "Water, Water, Everywhere ...(safety of drinking water)." Nutrition Action Healthletter . June 2000. The Page Group. 30 Oct. 2002.

Schardt, David. "Filter This" Nutrition Action Healthletter June 2000. The Page Group. 30 Oct. 2002.

Downey, Michael "Cool, Clean Water." Better Nutrition. June 2002 Better Nutrition Magazine. 31 Oct 2002.

Turner, Lisa. "Toxins on tap? Why bottles and purifiers really hold water." Find Articles Dec. 2001. Better Nutrition Magazine. 31 Oct 2002

Erasmus, Udo. "Fitness Fats and Misfit Fats." Fats that Heal. 2002. Udo Erasmus. 30 Oct. 2002.

Erasmus, Udo. "The Right Fat Diet & Essential Fatty Acids." Fats that Heal. April 2001 Udo Erasmus. 30 Oct. 2002.

Derek Alessi, Don Alessi Jr. The Promise: Fat Loss & Fitness System Williamsville, New York: Clarence Bros. Press 2002., LLC "Product Review: Nutrition Bars (Energy Bars, Protein Bars, Diet Bars, and Meal-Replacement Bars)" Consumer Lab 2001. Nutrition News Focus. 28 Oct 2002

Shugart, Chris. "The Essential Berardi." Testosterone. 8 March 2002, Testosterone Publishing, LLC. 9 November 2002

Coleman, JS "Insulin Index" Vegan Bikers. 2000 Bionomic Nutrition Forum. 4 November 2002.