Tailor-Made Nutrition - Part 3

From One Size Fits All to One Size Fits You

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this article series, I explained the parallels between tailoring suits and tailoring nutrition plans, including beginning with a template, making frequent measurements, and, based on these measurements, fitting the template to your individual needs based on a sensible and proven method.

Now, in this last installment of the Tailor-Made Nutrition series, I'll continue where I left off in Part II, moving from the discussion of methodology to the actual adjustments you may need to tailor-make your own nutrition plan.

From General Decision-Making to Specific Solutions

With your full nutritional plan in hand and a selection of relevant metrics to track, you set out to eat at 90% adherence for two weeks. After those two weeks, you measure your progress. Run a 40, get some blood work done, or step on the scale, depending on your goals. If you like what you see, continue with the plan unchanged. If you don't, you need to examine why and change your plan accordingly.

So, there are two possible outcomes:

1. You got the results you wanted. Your 40 yard times improved, your blood lipid profile improved, and you dropped two pounds of fat mass over the two weeks.

2. You didn't get the results you wanted. Your measurements show less than expected, negligible, or no results.

If your controlled experiment (i.e., your nutritional plan) yielded the first outcome, the desired results, congratulations! If you wish to maintain or improve any of those results, you can simply continue the plan as is until it stops working.

If your plan yielded the second outcome – less than expected results – then you must change something immediately. There are three possible explanations for less than expected results:

1. The results you wanted were unrealistic.

2. The results you wanted were realistic, but your execution wasn't up to the task.

3. The results you wanted were realistic, and your execution was up to the task, but your plan was inadequate.

Each of these explanations has its own cause, and its own solution. Let's look at each separately.

Unrealistic Expectations

Most people would readily admit that expecting to lose ten pounds of fat or gain ten pounds of muscle, correct serious blood lipid issues, or cut their 40 yard time from 5.5 to 4.4 in two weeks is unrealistic. Yet oddly, on the subconscious level, many want to believe that these results are not only possible, they're likely!

Blame "seven minute abs" commercials, blame the cabbage diet, blame whomever you want. But once you stop blaming, start accepting reality. Often things are less difficult than we think they'll be but take much longer than we think they'll take. That's the reality. Accept it.

However, remember this: not achieving things you couldn't possibly have achieved, no matter how good your nutrition, tells you nothing about how to optimize your plan. If your nutrition plan has produced less than your expected results, take a look and see if your goals were realistic first.

How? You need to determine two things about your goals:

1. Upper limit of achievement. How much can you truly hope to achieve, assuming you do everything right and do it consistently for as long as it takes? Will you be able to run a 4.4? Do you have all the other resources in place to do so, like a great running coach, a great training program, etc.?

Or with respect to body composition, can you really be 225 pounds at 5% body fat, and if so, are you willing to do everything it takes to get there? Does your lifestyle afford you the ability to achieve the upper limit? If not, are you willing to change it? What, realistically, do you hope to achieve?

2. Rate of achievement. How long should it take to reach your upper limit of achievement? Will you improve at a consistent rate, or will improvement come faster at some times than at others? If consistent, how much improvement should you expect every two weeks? If variable, how little improvement should you be willing to accept during periods of slow returns, and how long should you expect those periods to last?

These aren't simple questions to answer, and in some cases you'll simply not have the expertise to answer them. But if you want to have a standard by which to judge your progress, you need those answers. So how do you go about getting them?

For specific goals, consult an expert or someone who's achieved what you want to achieve. Consult as many people like this as you can find, and take an average of their responses. Find people who have direct experience achieving the goals you seek. Generally, knowledgeable coaches will help you out with this for free or for a low cost.

But if you're at a complete loss, you can do what I do. Ever heard of the Kaizen Principle? It's a Japanese concept (or at least, a Japanese word for a universal concept) that was popularized in North America by Dr. Edwards Deming, and later touted by Anthony Robbins, Charles Poliquin, and a number of others.

The basic premise is that you should make continual progress, even if only invery small increments, and that by doing so you can achieve goals thought beyond your reach. So for instance, Tony Robbins used the principle to convince people to make small strides towards personal development goals, and Poliquin used it to support or explain the concept of "microloading" – using load increases of as little as half a pound to ensure continual strength gains. I'll let you judge the merits of all that yourself.

For our purposes, we'll use it to give us a guideline by which to measure our progress. When you can't settle on an expected result for your two week measurement, choose the smallest increment you can measure and make sure that you improve by that increment every two weeks.

Here's an example. Let's say you're trying to put on muscle mass, but all you have at your disposal to measure your progress is a bathroom scale. A simple but effective tactic is to simply make sure that every time you step on the scale, your measured weight increases by at least the smallest measurable increment – probably one or two pounds. Every two weeks, your goal is to see that needle move one notch to the right. That's it.

Certainly, you could do a much more detailed measurement than that, but if that's all you do, you're already ahead of the game.

In essence, you simply measure in order to ensure that you're progressing in the right direction. The magnitude of that change (i.e., how much actual progress you make) is important, but secondary.

Bottom line? Make sure you:

1. Choose a goal.

2. Select a weight so that you can track your progress toward that goal.

3. Set your expectations, in terms of both upper limit and rate of achievement.

4. If you can't determine a realistic rate of achievement for your goal, try to progress by the minimum measurable increment every two weeks.

Once you've done all that, you can get back to executing the plan.

Inadequate Execution

If your expectations are realistic, but you were unable to meet them, take a look at your execution. Did you adhere to the plan itself? Did you violate the 90% rule?

Ninety percent adherence is the standard I set for execution. What this means is that you must eat at least 90% of the meals on your plan, and that no more than 10% of your meals may be unplanned, missed, or cheat meals. I want to be very clear that this isn't some vague or arbitrary number. Rather, it's specific and well-chosen.

It's specific in that it leaves no room for error. It gives us a simple way to measure adherence. Count up the total number of meals you're supposed to eat each week and multiply by 0.1 to give you the total number of unplanned, missed, or cheat meals allowed each week. So an average plan that indicates six meals per day, multiplied by seven days, gives me a total of 42 meals per week; 42 multiplied by 0.1 gives me 4.2 unplanned, missed, or cheat meals per week. Round down to give you the magic number 4 – the number of times you can violate your plan each week.

It's well-chosen, in that 90% adherence is just right for long term success. Certainly, 100% adherence would be best, but we're dealing with human beings here. In all but the most extreme cases (for example, bodybuilding contest preparation), 100% is neither feasible nor necessary.

We want to account for spontaneity, the inevitable missed meal, and my desire to get my weekly pizza fix. Ninety percent adherence allows for all that. You can eat your favorite foods guilt-free, you can miss a meal, you can eat in a restaurant – just not more than 10% of the time. So take your four chances per week and make the best of them.

But keep in mind that 90% is 90%. It's a real, objective number. It's not 80% or 67% or 50% or 15%. It's high, and it requires discipline. Yes, it's true that you may still be able to see some results by adhering only 80% of the time, assuming that you have a great plan. However, it's a slippery slope.

Most of the time, 80% adherence will get you less than 80% of the results you could've had, and 50% adherence will get you far less, possibly even nothing. I have no data on this; it's just my own experience – so take it for what it's worth.

Another problem with adhering less than 90% is that you start to lose control over the nutritional variables. Remember, the whole point of this article series is to teach you how to manipulate and optimize your plan – how to tailor your nutrition. That requires tight control of what you're eating, at the very least. Poor execution means that:

You no longer have accurate data on your nutritional intake. When you start eating too many unplanned, missed, or cheat meals, the nutritional analysis you have of the plan itself no longer correlates well with your actual intake. To get that info, you'd have to keep a food log again – and we've already discussed the drawbacks of doing that.

You no longer have control over the variables. Too much variation from the plan can mean that you're getting too many calories, too little, too much, or too little of a macronutrient, etc. Whatever the case may be, consistency is no longer assured, and the controlled experiment you sought to perform on yourself is compromised.

You can no longer manipulate the variables with any degree of accuracy. Say you want to increase calories, cut carbs, or implement some new cutting edge strategy. Without control over these variables, how do you plan to make those changes?

You can no longer accurately correlate the minute changes you make with the results you're getting (or not getting). Say you did tweak your plan slightly in the hopes of optimizing your results, and then went out and followed the plan only 70% of the time. You measure your results and see that – surprise – there are none. Was the tweak unsuccessful?

I have no idea, and neither do you, because you never tried it! Unless you come reasonably close to isolating the change you made – that is, making sure that it's the only change, and that the rest of your diet was largely held constant – you can have no idea whether it would've worked or not.

It comes down to this: you need to meet the 90% adherence rule, week in, week out. I can't make you do it, but I can help you track it. In Part II of this article I gave you a chart for doing so.

Now, that's not to say that if you didn't hit the 90% adherence mark, you should make no changes to the plan itself. But the changes I want you to make at this point are logistical changes – that is, changes that help you work the plan into your daily life.

If you missed meals, prepare more in advance, or have a backup plan. If you don't like the taste of certain meals, spice them up or replace them with meals of equal nutritional value. Do whatever you have to do in order to reach 90% adherence. There's always a way.

Inadequate Plan

So, you measured your results, and they're sub-optimal. Once you're certain that your expectations are reasonable and that your execution was excellent, you're justified in looking at the plan itself.

Remember, though, that you're not starting with just any old plan. If you walked through the process with me in Part I, you built a plan based on the 7 Habits – and for good reason. Those rules are derived from scientific study, my own data from my clients and my own personal experience over the years, so I'm very confident that they work. Nevertheless, if nothing positive is happening, something has to change. This principle is the foundation of outcome-based decision making.

We're not, however, going to abandon the plan entirely. Rather, we're going to assume that the plan is largely sound, and that it'll serve as the foundation for our future plans. That assumption is valid in this case, because I said so. You don't need to believe me, but believing me will save you a great deal of time and energy. If you do wish to abandon the plan as I've laid it out, I bid you Godspeed. For the rest, let's tweak what we've got.

Before I move on to describe what to change and in what order (which will reveal my nutritional biases), let me state that this process can be used equally well with nutritional advice other than my own. Want to tweak your Atkins or Zone diet? You can do that. Heard that eating grapefruit for breakfast will help you maintain an erection? Well, hold your grapefruit diet constant for two weeks – and when watching the girl next door get undressed each night, break out the stopwatch to measure the results.

Changing Your Intake – When and How Much?

So how do you change your diet on the basis of the measurements you've taken, and when? This is the big question. The quick answer is, when what you're doing works, keep doing it. Keep doing it until it doesn't work.

You'll know when something isn't working. You'll have the data. When the change from week to week is non-existent or even negative, it's not working.

If the change is obviously negative, something is taking you in the wrong direction. What? Well, here's the checklist:

Step 1: Double-check your adherence.

As you should've gathered by now, I believe the number one problem for most individuals not getting great results through a basic eating plan based on the 7 Habits isn't some secret macronutrient mix they don't know about. It's adherence.

So make sure you're actually following the plan, and this isn't merely a discipline, motivation, or belief system problem. Those can be addressed by a good coach, but not through nutritional intervention.

Step 2: Check your training.

If you started with a good baseline diet, one known to work for people with your body type for your chosen goal, and if you followed that diet closely enough to earn your adherence X's, then the next step is to look at your training.

Don't overlook the importance of exercise: type, volume, and intensity are all important. For example, independent research studies conducted at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Wyoming demonstrated that, for most people, exercising at least five hours a week is necessary to improve body composition. My own anecdotal experience tells me the same thing.

If you're doing at least five hours of purposeful exercise, with a large portion of that exercising being of high intensity, you're probably on the right track. If not, don't blame your diet just yet; blame your exercise program.

Step 3: Adjust Your Dietary Intake.

If you've picked a good baseline diet, followed it to 90% compliance, and optimized your training program, yet still aren't getting the results you're after, it's time to adjust your intake based on your body type and physiological responses to nutrition.

Should you increase or decrease the size of your meals. Cut calories? Cut carbs? Increase protein? Increase healthy fats? You could make any of these changes, and many more. The beauty of this system (creating a specific plan first, then following it exactly for two weeks) means that you know the exact caloric intake, macronutrient content, etc. of your plan.

You don't need to piss around with food logs every day, or record the content of your meals as little "notes to self" in your iPod. No one but the OCD among you will do this sort of thing anyway. By planning in advance, you'll know exactly what you ate, because you either followed the plan or you didn't – and if you didn't, that's the problem. If you did, then you've got a great baseline of food choices that you can tweak to force progress.

Nutritional Adjustments

Earlier in this article series I told you that I won't sugarcoat things. So it's important that I state the following: I won't pretend that this article series could give you everything you need to prescribe, monitor, and adjust your nutritional plan for a perfect body. It can't; it's just an article series. However, I will cover some of the major categories of adjustments and some simple rules of thumb that'll take you further than the vast majority of your peers.

Of course, each of these adjustments and rules of thumb assumes that you passed checks one (you're following the plan) and two (you're training correctly for your body type and goal).

Adjusting Carbohydrate Intake

Carbohydrate intake is the first thing I look to when individualizing someone's nutrition plan. This is largely a function of two beliefs. The first is that it's very easy to eat the wrong types of carbohydrates. Proteins and fats are easy to get right. Carbs, on the other hand, are a virtual nutritional minefield.

Secondly, I believe that carbohydrate tolerance varies widely and that nutrient partitioning is closely related to the body's ability to tolerate carbohydrates. I find that by matching carbohydrate intake to an individual's physiological carbohydrate tolerance, nutrient partitioning and body composition can quickly be improved.

Therefore, to individualize someone's carbohydrate intake, I first separate them into three carbohydrate tolerance groups – poor carbohydrate tolerance, moderate carbohydrate tolerance, and excellent carbohydrate tolerance.

1) Excellent Carbohydrate Tolerance

Those individuals with excellent carbohydrate tolerance are typically very lean and athletic and can remain so with a fairly high carbohydrate diet. In fact, these individuals usually need a higher carbohydrate diet to function well. Deprive them of their carbs and replace those carbs with more protein and fat and they're sluggish, perform more poorly, and actually carry a worse body composition.

So, for these individuals, I focus on helping them choose clean carbohydrates with each meal, typically a mixture of starchy and fibrous carbs. Of course, the remainder of the 7 Habits still must be followed.

For those of you who absolutely have to see the macronutrient split I might prescribe for someone with excellent carbohydrate tolerance, it's usually around 55% carbohydrate, 25% protein, and 20% fat. Just keep in mind that I don't encourage anyone to be obsessive about each percentage point of each macronutrient. Rather, in this group, I suggest simply following the 7 Habits and "supplementing" each 7 Habits meal with some clean, starchy carbohydrates.

It's interesting to note that I believe that as individuals age they typically lose some ability to tolerate carbohydrate, so you should take this into account with the passing years and adjust as necessary.

2) Poor Carbohydrate Tolerance

Those individuals with poor carbohydrate tolerance are typically fatter, more endomorphic, and require more physical activity to get lean. These individuals do better on diets higher in protein and fats with a lower carbohydrate intake. Therefore, for these individuals, I require strict adherence to the 7 Habits.

For them, there are very few or no starchy carbohydrates outside of the workout and post-workout phases of the nutrient timing day. Their carbohydrate intake outside of these phases, even on off days, should come from veggies, with a small amount of fruit as well.

The macronutrient split I might prescribe for someone with poor carbohydrate tolerance is usually around 30% carbohydrate, 35% protein, and 35% fat. Again, I don't encourage anyone to be obsessive about each percentage point of each macronutrient. Just follow the 7 Habits uncompromisingly and your body comp will come in line.

3) Moderate Carbohydrate Tolerance

Those individuals with moderate carbohydrate tolerance typically fall between the other two extremes. These individuals do best when eating their starchy carbohydrates only during certain times of the day. For them, they should follow the 7 Habits, eating non-veggie and non-fruit carbohydrates only during and immediately after exercise, but they can also add a small amount of starchy carbohydrates during breakfast meals.

The macronutrient split here might be 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Just follow the 7 Habits and supplement breakfast with starchy carbs and your body comp will come in line.

At this point you're probably wondering whether these suggestions should be followed during periods of mass gain or fat loss. They should be followed regardless of your specific goals, assuming your goals don't include becoming a big, fat bastard. For weight gain or weight loss progress, once you're eating according to sound nutrient timing principles and making good food selections, calorie intake is the most important factor.

Adjusting Protein Intake

Adjusting protein intake is a fairly easy process. There are two things that I consider when tailoring protein intake to the individual.

1) The first is to make sure that the individual is eating enough total protein to prevent a negative nitrogen balance. Pretty simple, and most weight trainers and athletes have already got this one covered if they're approaching 1g/lb (one gram per pound of body weight).

2) The second is to increase the protein intake from this point based on the individual's body type and carbohydrate tolerance. If the individual is lean and has great carbohydrate tolerance, then carb intake is higher (as discussed above) while protein (still above the 1g/lb mark) and fat intakes are lower.

If the individual has poor carbohydrate tolerance and is fatter, the opposite is true. For this type of individual, carbohydrate intake is lower (as discussed above) while protein and fat intakes are higher. This dietary shift helps increase metabolic rate and manage insulin concentrations.

In the end, with respect to protein intake, I find that the best advice is to follow the 7 Habits (eating lean, complete protein with each meal, every two or three hours) and to adjust that protein intake based on what you're doing with your carbohydrate intake.

Adjusting Fat Intake

Fat intake is the most easily manipulated and should scale, in amount, in an inverse relationship to carbohydrate intake. However, one important note should be made with respect to fat intake. As discussed in the 7 Habits, it's important to eat healthy fats daily.

Another way of saying this is: supplement your normal intake with healthy fats. Add olive oil, flax oil, fish oil, mixed nuts, flax seeds, etc. to your daily intake and the fats you're normally getting from your complete protein sources will end up fairly balanced.

Adjusting Calorie Intake

Food selection and nutrient timing are critical to nutrient partitioning and body composition, but calorie intake dictates weight gain or weight loss. Therefore, if you're interested in gaining or losing weight, the formula should be pretty simple: eat more to gain weight, eat less to lose weight. Unfortunately, it's not always this simple.

1) Muscle Gain

If you're after muscle gain, it usually is pretty simple: increase food intake. I typically recommend increasing daily food intake by 250kcal every two weeks (of course, using outcome-based decision making along the way).

But remember, there are some conditions that must be met before you can expect to see mostly lean gains with this increase in food intake.

a. You must be adhering to a specific energy intake in order to know how many calories to increase your energy intake by. Sure, blasting a ton of additional energy into your system will cause weight gain, but likely more fat gain that you'll be comfortable with. So we're back to the adherence thing. Make sure your adherence is good and only then will your 250 calorie bump have any utility.

b. You must be training appropriately for your muscle-building goals.

c. You must be eating for your body type (carbohydrate tolerance). Selecting good food choices and appropriate nutrient timing is paramount.

2) Fat Loss

Optimal fat loss, on the other hand, isn't quite as simple since many individuals who habitually under-eat tend to have depressed metabolic rates. Increasing exercise volume to five hours per week, with a high percentage of this exercise coming from high intensity exercise, will help improve metabolic rate. Also, increasing protein intake will help increase metabolic rate.

However, with most of my clients who are habitual under-eaters, my first step is to adjust their food type and timing, while increasing calorie intake. This increase is situational and depends on how far off their current eating is relative to what they should be eating.

When I increase calorie intake in this manner, there's typically no change in body weight during the first few weeks, but lean body mass goes up while fat mass goes down. With this new tendency toward good nutrient partitioning and increased metabolic power, I now begin to decrease calories by about 250 every two weeks.

Of course, for this to work, the same rules apply as with muscle gain. Adherence has to be there, as does an appropriate exercise program and good nutrient timing.

For all calorie adjustments, keep this in mind: with respect to calorie intake, when you make these changes, make sure you keep everything else the same. Your meals will look more or less the same, just larger or smaller. The changes will be spread evenly across the entire meal too.

Don't reduce the size of your chicken salad by taking out 50% of the spinach; take 10% out of the spinach, 10% off the chicken breast, etc. Spread the change evenly across the meals.

Extreme Body Composition Alterations

The adjustments discussed above with respect to carbohydrate, protein, fat, and calorie adjustments work fantastically for timely, sane alterations in body composition.

However, when individuals are looking for something more extreme, such as dropping to below 5% body fat in 12 weeks, dropping body fat ridiculously fast on a time schedule, or gaining lean mass very quickly on a time schedule, these suggestions above need a bit of tweaking. These extreme body composition techniques are beyond the scope of this article series, although I may tackle them in article format in the near future.

The Resistance

I understand that this system may seem a bit complicated and difficult. However, rest assured; it's only difficult at first. Eventually, it's very, very easy.

But there are three types of individuals to whom this article series may not apply:

1) Type 1: The Gym Rat

The gym rat is the individual who spends all his free time at the gym. This guy spends lots of hours working out, performing lots of sets, lots of reps, etc. This individual will argue that my advice is "too complicated because all you've gotta do to get into great shape is eat clean and train."

However, keep in mind, this person trains... and trains... and trains. High volumes of exercise can mask sub-optimal eating patterns, and often do. So make sure you ignore this person's advice unless you're willing to spend all your free time at the gym. Or you're willing to risk potential nutrient deficiencies. Or you're willing to see a serious loss of body composition control when you can't exercise as much as you once did.

2) Type 2: The Genetic Adonis

The genetic Adonis is the guy who can eat pretty much whatever he wants without much thought or planning and remain in great shape largely due to his superior genetic make-up. This individual got dealt the genetic wild card so his advice is largely meaningless to you unless you've got his genetics.

3) Type 3: The Veteran

The veteran is the individual who's gotten in great shape without endless hours in the gym and without superior genetics. This is the individual you'll most often turn to for advice. His advice will usually be well-intentioned and sympathetic.

However, unless this person is a damn good coach (and coaching credentials come from a combination of learning the coaching process in theory and practicing it over and over again), you should always be careful of the veteran's advice. It'll usually be good advice, but sometimes, things that the veteran has learned over time are internalized so deeply that they don't get their due credit.

This is particularly true when it comes to the system laid out in this Tailor-Made Nutrition series. Earlier in my career, I'd never have been able to write this article series. In fact, before I started coaching, I would've scoffed at something so detailed and told you that "getting in great shape doesn't have to be so difficult." But after seeing that pithy phrase fail so miserably – and seeing that most people need to see the process broken down into much greater detail before understanding it, putting it into practice, and truly benefiting from it – I've learned my lesson.

The reality is that I'd forgotten my early learning curve. Nowadays my nutritional program is so refined that looking in the mirror every day is all the measurement I need to alter my nutritional intake every week or two to accomplish my current goals. But in the beginning I needed a written plan, regular measurement, adherence accountability, and systematic alterations. It's easy to forget the early struggles and habit-building when you've long-since internalized the process.

So take well-meaning advice about how easy it is with a grain of salt, and understand that your body is always conspiring to stay exactly the way it is now. Without a specific plan, rigorous adherence, and optimization over time, the fat will stay fat and the skinny will stay skinny. The upshot is that if you stick with the process I described in this series, it'll become just as easy for you as it is for the veterans – and sooner than you think.


Tailor-Made Nutrition represents a systematic way of tailoring your nutritional intake, a way of creating the perfect nutritional fit, just as my Italian friend Signor Caruso creates the perfect sartorial fit.

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 specifications. I hope this article series has helped you to learn the principles to become a master nutritional tailor in your own right.

John Berardi, PhD, is the founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest nutrition coaching and education company. Berardi advises organizations like Apple, Equinox, and Nike. He's coached the San Antonio Spurs, the Carolina Panthers, US Open Champ Sloane Stephens, and 2-division UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre.