We asked some of our T Nation pros this question:
What's the biggest diet or nutrition mistake lifters make?
Here's what they had to say.
The biggest mistake is following "off the shelf" and one-size-fits-all nutrition protocols as opposed to finding what works for you.
Look, it's certainly true we share the vast amount of our metabolic tendencies with every other human. But our biochemistry is a lot like our physical appearance. If I see you walking towards me on the street you are unmistakably a human. But when I see you up close, I can see you're an individual with a unique face, personality, way of speaking, and behaving.
Likewise you have a unique metabolic expression, psychological sensitivities, and personal preferences that will impact how you respond to diet and exercise. In order to honor both the similarities and the differences, you should use a concept I call "structured flexibility." Choose any diet, nutrition protocol or eating philosophy you want to start, then measure your individual responses to that regime.
Does it keep hunger and cravings at bay? Is it stabilizing your energy so you can perform well during workouts and easily recover after them? Is it stripping off the fat or putting on the muscle according to your goals? If not, then you're going to need to adjust your approach. Instead of being a dieter, you should be behaving more like a metabolic detective finding the unique diet and exercise inputs that deliver the results.
Bruce Lee sums it up best: "Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own." – Jade Teta
Focusing on macros and forgetting their micros.
From the moment most lifters get serious about tossing iron, they spend their days adding up on their fingers and toes how many grams of protein, carbohydrate, or fat they just ate or are planning to eat. In doing so, they forget entirely, or almost entirely, about the micronutrients their bodies need. Vegetables and fruits are an afterthought.
Of course, to be completely accurate, most lifters obsess mostly over how much protein they're eating. In their minds, grams of protein equate to their level of lifter piousness – the more the better – and they spend the bulk of their days searching for their next angry protein fix. Grams of carbs and fat are still in their mental wheelhouse, of course, but not to the degree that protein is.
Many of these lifters go on to develop formidable bodies regardless, and they often present themselves as pillars of health, but lots of times these supposedly healthy bodies are a facade. I can't tell you how many of these guys – many of them well known – who have secret and horrible health problems, health problems that are uncharacteristic for men their age.
They've got serious heart conditions, serious gut problems, lab values that would, ironically, give their heart doctors a coronary, and a lot of it's from focusing on macros to the exclusion of micros.
Sure, not all lifters have fallen prey to this extreme kind of dietary segregation, but who knows how many of them will eventually get prematurely sick if they don't make dietary amends?
These lifters liken themselves to carnivores, but maybe they need to be reminded that genetically, they're just hairless apes who wear their baseball caps backwards. Rather than hunt nothing but meat, they should occasionally pursue a pickle, stalk some celery, or ambush some arugula.
They avoid this plant matter because they put their physiques ahead of their health. Maybe they didn't want to eat too much fruit because they were worried about fructose or getting fat in general. Maybe they thought vegetables tasted icky. Maybe they thought they could circumvent nature by just taking a daily gummy bear multi-vitamin. Or maybe they were just plain ignorant.
They're like the Golem in Jewish folklore, a powerful and terrible being formed entirely from clay or mud. If only the Golem had eaten his fruits and vegetables! What a mensch he would have been! Likewise, if only the average lifter spent more time thinking about nutrient-dense foods! He'd have a body that was as healthy as it looks.
Guys who have complete nutrition don't worry about getting fat because they're insulin sensitive. They don't worry about their estrogen levels because they're getting indoles and other estrogen-fighting phytochemicals from their fruit and vegetable diets. And they certainly don't worry about limp dicks because their plumbing is Drano-clean from keeping vascular inflammation to a minimum, courtesy of nutrient-dense foods filled with micronutrients.
Admittedly, it IS possible to live and be healthy on a diet consisting of only protein, i.e., animal tissue, but not just muscle meat. To stay healthy on an all-meat diet, you'd have to go full-Eskimo and eat organ meats – livers, kidneys, brains, and even eyeballs. That's where the nutrients are. But if you're not willing to go that distasteful route, get thee to eating nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.
After all, even carnivores often eat the bellies of their herbivore or omnivore prey because they're usually laden with pre-digested vegetables, proving that even the supposedly dumb animals know more about nutrition than the average lifter.
My simple recommendation would be to spend as much time obsessing about where your next hit of vegetables or fruit is coming from, as you do obsessing about where your next hit of protein is coming from. – TC Luoma
The single biggest nutrition mistake that lifters make is ignoring (or going cheap) on their workout nutrition.
It boggles my mind seeing people train with nothing more than a bottle of water. This is hands-down the most important piece of nutrition for growth, recovery, and workout stamina. Yet lifters often prefer to waste their money on cheap post-workout protein shakes.
I'd rather see them become vegan to save on their grocery bill for their entire day's nutrition, but make the exception for the Ferrari of workout nutrition – Surge® Workout Fuel. I'm willing to bet they would make more favorable gains under the iron and in regards to body composition with this approach. Mark Dugdale
Lifters typically make the same two mistakes when it comes to nutrition, and both are related. But let's zoom out first and look at the big picture.
First, we have to look at what most fat-loss diets have in common. Diets make you stop (or greatly reduce) eating what we'll call "obvious crap" – the junk food, the treats, etc. You know, the stuff that everyone knows isn't doing them any good, and the stuff they only seem to stop stuffing down their gullets when they're "on a diet."
The result of ditching the junk? Overall food quality increases along with a natural reduction in calories. In this sense, all diets work whether they're paleo, vegan, low-carb, low-fat, etc. A meat n' veggies paleo eater gets rid of the junk and so does the smug raw-food vegan. A non-celiac who drops the donuts and Lucky Charms gets results too, whether gluten is really an issue or not.
This commonality tells us something: If you stop eating all the obvious bad shit, good things happen.
Second, all diets make you pay attention. Whether you're controlling your macronutrients or meeting a certain calorie count, you have to snap out of it and be aware. You go from a mindless eater to a mindful one. You're forced to read a label or two, which always works wonders, regardless of the diet's methodology.
This is why the simple advice of "keep a food log" usually leads to better nutrition and fat loss, even if no guidelines are given to the dieter – he or she is now aware and thinking about nutrition.
So that leaves us with two things that always work with any eating plan: Stop eating obvious garbage and start paying attention to what you do eat. And that circles back around to the biggest mistakes lifters make with diet:
- They won't stop eating obvious garbage.
- They are unaware, mindless eaters.
The long-term solution? Well, not many people want to hear it, but here goes: Stop stuffing garbage into your body and pay attention. Forever. Whether you're "on a diet" or not.
Yes, you'll suffer from very real withdrawal symptoms at first and it will suck like a Dyson, but then those feelings will fade, healthy food will start to taste awesome, your mind and body will self-regulate naturally, and you'll never have to really diet again.
Oh, and if you do decide to have a birthday treat, that one "bad" meal won't avalanche into six months of dietary debauchery and FUPA-gains. Auto-regulation and the elimination of food addictions has put you back in control.
Or you could adopt countless diets, fail again and again, be miserable, let food control you and, in the end, wreck you. And that stinks because food is amazing, learning how to prepare it is an invaluable skill, and striving to be healthy, strong, and lean is the grown-up thing to do. – Chris Shugart
The biggest mistake lifters make is not putting their gut health first.
The old adage of "you are what you eat" is absolutely incorrect! It should be "you are what you can digest and assimilate efficiently." Boom. Easy. Now let's take a closer look.
This isn't a sexy topic or one that most athletes, powerlifters, or bodybuilders pay attention to because the focus for so long has been about macronutrients. But it really doesn't matter how dialed in your macros are if your body can't use them efficiently.
Everything from a nutritional standpoint starts in the gut. The gut contains somewhere around 100 trillion organisms, a number so huge you can't wrap your mind around it. This is why an "if it fits your macros" approach has shortcomings. Just because you can fit refined foods into your diet doesn't mean it's as good as one that creates a healthy environment for said food to be processed optimally.
Starving bad bacteria, feeding good bacteria, and establishing healthy gut flora is imperative. A very easy way to ensure you're taking steps to create such an environment is to reduce refined, sugary, and overly processed foods, and include some fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir. Foods like steamed spinach and ginger will also help reduce inflammation in the digestive tract.
When you add all those things up, you're now working with a healthy digestive system that will promote fantastic nutrient assimilation and a stronger immune system. – Paul Carter
Biggest dietary mistake? Pigeonholing yourself.
Branding yourself as this type of dieter or that type of dieter, even after your progress has stalled. I'm guilty of doing this more times than I'd like to admit.
Why do we do this? Because labels are powerful. They make us feel like we fit in, and that feeling helps us commit, which is good... at first. But these labels can also make us barricade ourselves from different ideas and possibilities, which is bad. Staunch labels hinder critical thinking.
So, if you say "I'm paleo" or if your bio contains the acronym of your special diet, then what you're really saying is, "I define myself by what goes in my mouth, and I prefer to connect with people who eat how I eat." Again, it's all about fitting in and feeling like part of a club.
But why not be a person who's smart enough to try different things and assess the results? You don't need a label to do that. Be open to the possibility that more than one dietary strategy will work. And your commitment to it doesn't have to become your identity.
Examine different diets. Even the ones you're skeptical about. Test them with honest intentions. Make room in your nutritional toolbox so that you can pull from it for the rest of your life. Be about the results, not the labels. – Dani Shugart