The Tailor's Continuum: From One-Size-Fits-All to Bespoke

During my recent trip to Europe, I had the opportunity to visit a master tailor in a small town in northern Italy. A distant cousin of mine was in the market for a new suit, and eager to demonstrate the renowned Italian craftsmanship, he brought me to the shop of Signor Caruso.

Signor Caruso has spent his entire life making and fitting suits. His shop is small and overstuffed with material and equipment. In it lie swatches and bolts of the finest fabrics, from which the finest suits in the world are crafted by hand, every inch perfectly fit to the client, every cut perfectly made, every seam perfectly sewn. Caruso's suits are breathtaking to behold; they seem able to transform the average into the elegant.

I must say that I've never been much of a suit guy. In fact, for most of my adult life, I've been the tailor's worst nightmare: the weightlifting student – too oddly shaped to fit, too poor to pay. Furthermore, apart from a few weddings here and there, I've never had much of a need. But watching Caruso work was almost inspirational.

You see, Caruso makes what are called "bespoke" suits. Bespoke suits are the finest money can buy. Completely custom, they're handmade and perfectly tailored both to the customer's desires and to his measurements. Materials, style, fit – everything is custom, right down to the pocket type and style of stitching. Among connoisseurs, they're held in higher esteem than any "off-the-rack" suits, higher even than the "made-to-measure" labels, versions of the designer suits customized at the factory.

A bespoke suit can cost upwards of $4000, and can require three to five fittings and months to complete. Seeing the master in action, I understood why: the workmanship and attention to detail that go into this one garment is truly astounding. He jokes that you needn't have an occasion to wear one of his suits – with suits like these, the occasions find you.

Tailor-Made Nutrition

Guess what? If you want the perfect body, and you want it drug-free, your nutrition had better be more bespoke than off-the-rack.

You need to tailor your nutritional plan to your own precise and individual specs. You need more than a diet copped off a website or out of a magazine – or at the very least, you need to know exactly how to modify those diets to suit your needs and help you reach your goals. (You do have goals, don't you?) 

The purpose of this article series is to teach you how to do just that: to make your own nutrition more Caruso than JC Penny. To do that, you'll need to modify your expectations right now: this isn't a diet article, but rather what I'd call a process article.

You won't find tips and tricks here. You won't find recipes and meal plans. You won't find biochemistry. What you'll find is the method behind nutritional optimization and individualization; that is, the method you'll need to find the perfect diet for you.

A warning: This method is simple to use, but very demanding in terms of discipline. Most of you will never use it in its entirety. But those of you who do will get as close to perfect nutrition as you can possibly get on your own. My suggestion is that you read over the entire process, and try it as a complete system before you begin to pick and choose what parts of it you will and won't use.

Again, this isn't for everyone. Most will never have a perfectly tailored nutrition plan, just as very few will ever own a bespoke suit. But then again, those who do will look damn good.

As long as this is understood, we can proceed.

Where's Your Template?

There was one thing in particular about Caruso's method that struck a note with me. There's no question that the process of creating a bespoke suit is extremely complex, requiring a skilled, experienced tailor, a repeatable method, and a painstaking attention to detail. Yet despite all this, Caruso's method came across as almost simple.

In fact, every one of his custom suits starts from a single template. This template or pattern is then modified for each customer over the course of many fittings, eventually becoming the exquisitely tailored suit for which they pay $4000. In other words, the bespoke suit – the perfect garment – begins as nothing more than a one-size-fits-all template.

Rightly so, I'd say. Nutritional perfection, just like the sartorial variety, is an iterative process. That is, it requires many iterations or repetitions of the design process to arrive at the final destination. The master tailor doesn't expect to turn out a perfect suit by reading his customers palms or by some sort of divine revelation.

Instead, he calls his customer into his shop for a fitting, measuring and modifying the suit for a better fit. Then he does it again and again. He brings the customer back as often as necessary, fitting and modifying until he has created the perfect suit.

With nutrition, you must do the same. You must take a simple, basic nutritional template and test it out, modifying it according to the results you got from it. Only by doing so can you arrive at the destination – the perfect plan.

As it stands now, there's no magic test, no "eat right for your DNA" kind of prescriptive aid. Currently, the best we can do is employ a procedure that mixes informed trial-and-error with the scientific method. We begin with a hypothesis (i.e., a basic nutritional plan) based on the best information we have (latest research, anecdotal evidence, prior experience), we test it (eating according to the plan for a set period of time), and we modify the hypothesis on the basis of the results of our test (muscle gained, fat lost, etc.).

In other words, getting to the perfect plan will take time, effort, discipline, and attention to detail. But first you need a point of origin from which to depart, a basic template that you can start with, test out, and modify as necessary.

In this article, I'll show you how to build just such a template. In Part II and Part III, I'll show you the individualization process, provide some example cases, and direct you to some great tools and resources that will aid the process.

Initially, Everyone Has The Same Needs

So let's discuss this template, the meal plan you'll begin with. While it's true that you'll eventually need a special plan designed to meet your individual needs (both physiological and logistical), you don't need one just yet. In the beginning of your nutritional journey, your individual needs are likely the same as everyone else in your position.

You need: A simple nutritional plan that you can implement immediately, complete with correct food choices and correct habits.

You must be able to put the plan into action today – not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. It has to be so easy and so complete that you can begin it with your very next meal, and continue it with every meal thereafter until the habits that will sustain your progress are in place.

Complex formulas, supplements, macronutrient ratios, micronutrient content, or even (gasp!) calories are all things that you needn't concern yourself with initially. Don't get me wrong; you'll eventually concern yourself with all of those things. They'll become the variables that you can modify later. For now, however, it's best if you accept that the rules I'm about to give you are the best place to start.

If you wish to start with a different template, feel free to do so – the process described in these articles will help you correct your initial mistakes.

Start With 7 Simple Rules

You'll start out with a plan based on my 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nutritional Programs. Clever name, no? Possibly illegal, too, I imagine. Oh well. (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey, is a great book which I recommend highly – perhaps that will stave off the lawsuit.) If you've forgotten the rules, here's a summary:

I want you to get a piece of paper, right now, and create six meals based on these principles. Don't worry about portion size or calories or macronutrient ratios; we'll determine that later. For now, just create six meals that you could eat every day. If you can't eat the same six meals each day, create eight or ten or twenty – it doesn't matter, as long as for the next three to five weeks, 90% of the meals you eat are on that piece of paper in front of you, and all of them conform to those seven rules.

If you need help putting the meals together, browse through my articles in the T-Nation archives – plenty of examples. Ask on the forums. Or if you want it right from the horse's mouth, you can pick up my latest nutrition project, Precision Nutrition, and I'll save you the trouble. In it, I offer an expansion of the rules, meal plans based on just these rules, build-it-yourself meal templates, audio and video, and over 125 recipes that fit right in with the seven habits above.

Let's be really clear here, though. Like Senior Caruso's first steps in making a bespoke suit, the program begins with a one-size-fits-all plan. Well, two sizes – we've got men's and women's portion sizes to account for. However, men and women don't need to be told to eat more or less based on their gender – they already typically do that. Each one-size-fits-all plan, in the beginning, is equally well-suited to both the 150 pound, 7% body fat "hardgainer," and the 250 pound, 22% heavyweight.

So here's my advice to you. If you're currently dissatisfied with your body composition, your health, your energy levels, or your levels of daily and/or athletic performance, regardless of how novice or advanced you are (we'll determine that in a minute), start with the 7 Habits above. Build a meal plan that's based exclusively on the 7 Habits and follow the template that you build. Follow that template, without modification, for about three to five weeks.

Details... And So Forth

I know it's a tough sell. That's largely because you've been conditioned to believe that you need something different from everyone else. You're right! However, the best way to build a custom diet is to begin with a basic plan and individualize based on your own personal physiological responses. You can't get more perfectly individualized than that!

People tend to worry too much about calories, macronutrient ratios, and other details in the beginning, which in my opinion is just misplaced mental energy. Worrying about caloric intake or macronutrient ratios while missing meals and making gross errors in food selection and timing is just straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In the short term, in this case the three to five weeks that I want you to follow a one-size-fits-all plan, nearly any sane caloric intake will at worst have negligible negative impact on body composition, as long as the food selections are excellent. If you follow the seven rules above, they will be. Simply put, at this stage, food selection, immediate application, and consistency are critical; caloric intake is not.

Of course, such a plan may promote some great physical changes right up front. However, it may not. Your body may not change at all during the first few weeks. Since I'm assuming that physical change is exactly what most people are looking for from their nutrition programs (a leaner and/or more muscular physique), I'll share a basic principle with you here:

Remember, what I'm proposing here is a long-term procedure for nutritional optimization, and in turn, optimal body composition, health, and performance. To make it work, you'll have to adopt the mindset of the long-term thinker, who understands that success in any endeavor comes not from fads and schemes, but from the continuous application of simple, correct principles.

So, unless you're following the seven habits above 90% of the time or more, put away the scales, calipers, and calorie-counting software for the time being. Get out your pen and paper and come up with those six meals. If you don't have the food for those meals, make a grocery list and go shopping.

Oh, but I can hear the cries now...

I'm Advanced, Dammit!

Up until now, I've talked about what's useful and necessary in the "initial phase" or the "initial stage," without really defining what I mean by "initial."

It's simple, really. If your goal is to improve your body composition and physical appearance, I have a simple test to determine where you are in your nutritional career, so to speak. You're in the initial phase of your nutritional career if you answer "no" to the following two questions:

Question #1: When you look in the mirror, are you satisfied with your level of muscularity and leanness? That is, have you reached your body composition goals?

Question #2: If no, have you followed a nutritional plan conforming to the 7 Habits, day in and day out for at least five weeks, with no more than 10% of your meals falling outside of those criteria? Think about that before you answer. At an average of six meals per day, or 42 meals per week, that means no more than four meals were missed or broke the rules each week for five weeks.

The first question is an example of outcome-based decision making. If you're to succeed in any endeavor, you must be able to measure your progress and the outcome of your efforts. In this case, you subjectively assessed your appearance. If you so desired, you could also objectively measure your weight, lean body mass, and fat mass.

The bottom line is that if you aren't measuring results, you're wasting time. And if you are measuring results, but don't like what the measurements are telling you – say, that despite your current training and nutritional programs, you aren't as muscular and lean as you'd like – you need to change something.

The second question examines your efforts (or lack thereof). If you want to improve your body comp but aren't consistently following a nutritional program conforming to the 7 Habits, either start immediately or learn to accept your physical shortcomings, because they'll be yours for a long time. Hey, maybe some chicks dig pudgy midsections and chicken legs. Hope that works out for you.

Most people, if they're honest, will answer "no" to those questions – even some advanced trainees. Let me be clear on this: there's no direct relationship between what some refer to as "training age" and what we'll call "nutritional age," which begins on your nutritional birth date: the day you complete your three to five weeks, 90% 7 Habits compliant, one-size-fits-all nutrition program. Until then, you, my friend, are a nutritional novice, whatever your bench press numbers.

If you answered "no" to the first question (i.e., you still haven't reached your body comp goals) but answered "yes" to the second question (i.e., you've truly passed the novice stage), then you're on your way. Part II and Part III of this article series are for you.

Now, if you answered "yes" to the first question, God bless. You've done whatever you needed to do to get to your goal, and far be it for me to criticize your methods. They worked for you, and that's what counts. I'm not here to teach Picasso how to paint.

For the rest, go over the following checklist and make sure you've done everything you need to do before proceeding to Parts II and III of this series.

Summary and Checklist

1. Use outcome-based decision making. If you've reached your goals, great. If not, examine and change your methods. It never ceases to amaze me when over-fat people say "But I already eat great." Uh, are you sure about that?

2. Determine your nutritional age. If you've been following a 90% 7 Habits compliant nutrition plan for at least three to five weeks without fail, you've passed the initial phase and may proceed to Part II.

3. Construct a nutrition plan. Write down six, ten, twenty or more meals based on the 7 Habits and two workout beverages. Ignore concerns about calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, antinutrients, and everything else. Just make sure that all your meals conform to the rules.

4. Print out your meal plan and post it in visible places.

5. Commit to eating according to the plan for at least three weeks. After the three weeks, you may change meals as long as they still satisfy the criteria. From that meal plan, build a grocery list and purchase all the food you'll need for one week.

6. Prepare as many of the meals in advance as possible. Don't miss meals because of inadequate preparation and planning.

7. Eat every meal.

8. Count your misses (misses = meals that break the rules, or missed meals). Better yet, plan your misses at least a day in advance and turn them into cheat meals. You get four misses per week.

9. Proceed to Part II. When you've followed your plan consistently (i.e., no more than four misses per week) for at least three to five consecutive weeks, proceed to Part II.

What Now?

All this says nothing about where to go from here. Some of you have indeed passed the initial phase; others I hope will follow soon after reading this article. There's plenty more to discuss, and in Part II, I'll elaborate on the concept of procedural individualization, or what we can call "tailor-made" nutrition.

If you want to be a master nutritional tailor, it's required reading!

About Tailor-Made Nutrition