The Missing Ingredient

A simple tool that will allow you to pack on the pounds

If you're trying to reach a certain physique goal and you're not paying much attention to what you're eating, you're essentially playing ping pong in the dark. You might occasionally score, but mostly you'll just be swinging wildly.

To save yourself years of frustration, sub-optimal gains, and slow progress, you just need to do one thing.

Sorry to be so blunt, but if you're not willing to do this, then you're lazy and deserve a less-than-ideal physique.

Still think you can get away with not keeping a food log? Well, maybe if you're a genetic freak or a heavy steroid user, then perhaps you can. But even then, I think you'll make even better progress if your start logging your food intake. Here are a few more reasons why you need to be doing this:

Stop Guessing

Guessing about things like protein intake is a lot like guessing at your bodyfat percentage. Most people screw it up if left to their own devices. It's like that fat guy you know that's "pretty sure" his body fat is around 12%. Uh-huh. Yeah right. And I'm "pretty sure" that Anna Kournikova wants me to be her ball boy.

Whenever I agree to help someone out with their diet and training, the first thing I do is insist they use a food log. (This even takes precedence over a training log.) I simply have them eat what they always eat, but read labels and record everything. They always say the same thing, "I can't believe I was only getting 98 grams of protein per day!"

They assume that since they had some tuna for lunch and some protein powder after training that this has taken care of their protein requirements. And we all know what "ASSume" means, right?

See the Big Picture

Take a lesson from TC about minutia. People tend to focus on the very small, near inconsequential aspects of bodybuilding and forget about the big picture. They're monitoring their lifting tempo in the gym with a freakin' metronome, and yet their obliviously eating 78 grams of protein a day! Their priorities are out of whack!

Others research all the fat burners on the market, collect studies, try various products, yet they have no idea of how many actual calories they take in every day! See, they're missing the big picture, not seeing the forest for the trees, looking at nipples and missing the whole tittie... well, you get the idea.

It’s Crucial, But Tedious

Accept this fact now: keeping a food log is a pain in the butt at first. Weighing, measuring, and reading labels can sometimes take longer than eating! That's okay; it's like college. Sure, it takes four years, but what's four years compared to the rest of your life? What you learn from keeping a food log will be invaluable from this point on.

But don't worry, it gets easier and I'm going to show you how to make it as painless as possible and even make the transition to "instinctive eating" where you won't even need a food log.

Develop Awareness

Food logs make you aware of what you're eating. It's easy to overeat when you're not paying attention to calories. When recording your intake, you don't eat out of the container; instead you measure out servings of your cottage cheese or Ben & Jerry's or whatever. Subsequently, you eat less.

This is one of the main reasons why all diets work to an extent. When you go from stuffing your face at random to paying at least some degree of attention to what you eat, you lose weight. Happens every time.

Control Your Willpower

A food log will keep your willpower in check. This relates to the point above, but it goes the other direction. Some people have such strong willpower that they can easily not eat enough when dieting, which can lead to muscle loss. I know because I'm this way. Every time I experiment with a new diet I fall drastically short on calories the first couple of days. That's because my willpower is stronger than my appetite, which isn't always a good thing.

When I was playing around with a fat loss version of John Berardi's "Massive Eating" diet, I fell 500 to 750 calories short the first two days. If I hadn't been logging calories, I may not have noticed that and could've lost muscle or put the brakes on my metabolism. By day three I was right on target. The winter layer came off and the muscle stayed on.

Prevent Plateaus

Recording your food intake will keep you from plateauing prematurely. Attention scrawny guys who "can't gain weight": I've never seen a person that couldn't add at least twenty pounds of solid muscle with the right diet and training. Yep, even those genetically cursed, long-limbed types with metabolisms like furnaces can add twenty pounds of beef if they half-ass pay attention to what they're doing. The problem is that most of these "hard gainers" aren't eating as much as they think they are. Only by recording their food intake will they see their mistake.

Here's another thing. There are three categories of regulars in the gym. First, there's the guy who's big and strong but is also pretty fat. Second, there's the little guy who's pretty muscular but still barely cracks 150 pounds. Sure, he has abs, but he looks like a twelve year old girl with his street clothes on. Finally, there's the guy who's got it all going on – size and cuts. I'll give you one guess what separates these three types of people. Yep, the person with the complete package is usually the one keeping a food log or some type of nutrition journal.

Okay, you know the "why," now let's get to the "how." In the words of Ian King, enough talk. Let's do it!

Our goal is to make this relatively painless and easy, and then transition you into a lean, mean sumbitch who doesn't even need a stinkin' food log. There are many ways to do this, of course, but this is the easiest method in my opinion and the way that I do it. Here we go:

Here's what you need: two legal pads, a calculator, a food scale (a cheap plastic one can be as little as $10 in most grocery stores), and a measuring cup.

Now you need to decide what your goals are. Yeah, yeah, gain tons of muscle and lose tons of fat at the same time. Meanwhile, back in the real world.... Listen, that just isn't realistic for most people. Pick a primary goal – fat loss or muscle gain – and go from there.

Next, choose a diet based on your goal. The previous issues section of T-mag has dozens of them to choose from.

The main thing you need to decide on is how many calories per day you'll be consuming. There're many ways to do this, from easy (multiply your bodyweight by a certain number, like 12 for example) to in-depth (see Part I of the Massive Eating diet). It doesn't matter what formula you use because, honestly, it's all a crap shoot in the end and you'll have to adjust and re-adjust caloric intake as you go along. So just pick a formula and go with it. Weigh and test bodyfat one day per week and adjust from there, based on your results or lack thereof. I usually do mine every Saturday morning.

It sounds old fashioned, but the old "pound a week" rule is pretty good. You'll probably be able to lose about a pound a week of fat without losing muscle. Just keep in mind that low carb diets cause a lot of initial fluid loss, so if you drop four pounds the first week, don't panic. (If you drop four pounds the second week, then you need to up your daily caloric intake.) Also, those that need to lose a lot of weight can safely break the "one pound per week" rule. The fatter you are, the faster the initial fat loss. Still, be careful. Don't mess up your metabolism by losing muscle along with the fat.

Gather up all the supplements you'll be using during your diet. Some will have caloric value, others won't. Here's an example from my own diet. Although I play around with a lot of supplements, there are a few I use every day regardless of my goals: Falmeout®, Brain Candy®, Biotest Surge®, Metabolic Drive® Protein, and usually a fiber supplement since I admittedly don't eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Add up everything you use, calculating all the macros and write this at the top of one of your legal pads. Mine looks like this:

  • Calories / Carbs / Protein / Fat
  • Surge®: 350/43/24/8
  • Flameout® (4 caps): 52/0/0/6
  • Brain Candy®: 0/0/0/0
  • Metabolic Drive® Protein: 660/20/126/6
  • Fiber (Metamucil): 20/5/0/0
  • Total: 1082/68/150/20

Metabolic Drive® Protein usage varies greatly according to my diet goals, so the above just represents what I used during my last fat loss diet. I had a daily protein shake for breakfast and at night I had two scoops of Metabolic Drive® Protein before bed. On a mass phase, the supplemental protein usage would go way up.

Surge was used on training days only (four days a week), so I just subtracted those numbers from non-training days. If I'm really watching my carbs, I'll ditch the Metamucil and replace it with a plain, unflavored psyllium husk product. Also, keep in mind I used other products during this diet (MD6 for example), but they didn't have any calories or anything so they weren't logged.

Once you get all this figured out, you'll save yourself a lot of time for the rest of the week or even for the duration of the diet phase. Just put those numbers at the top of your daily food chart and you're done.

Now comes the tedious part. Start reading labels, measuring out serving sizes and weighing food where appropriate. The calculator is there to make it easy.

For each meal, calculate the numbers for each type of food and get a total for the meal. A low carb breakfast consisting of a chicken omelet may look like this:

  • Calories / Carbs / Protein / Fat
  • 3 eggs: 240/2/21/15
  • Fat free cheese: 30/2/5/0
  • Chicken breast: 130/2/27/3
  • A higher carb, lower fat breakfast might be oatmeal with half an protein shake mixed into it after cooking.
  • Oatmeal: 150/27/5/3
  • Metabolic Drive® Protein: 110/4/21/1

You'll notice I'm using the Massive Eating meal combining ideas where, basically, I try not to mix much fat and carbs in the same meal and always include protein. The above meals both fit the guidelines rather nicely.

Log every meal and snack like this. This is a pain, but it's about to get easier, trust me. You may want to total everything up a couple of times during the day to see if you're meeting your goals.

After the first few days, you'll get a good idea of what and how much to include in each meal. Once you get a good combination you like, transfer that meal to the second legal pad. For example, if you really like that chicken omelet recipe above, write the totals for the meal (400 cals, 6g carbs, 53g protein, 18g fat) on the second legal pad under the heading "Chicken Omelet."

Now, the next time you have one, there'll be no label reading or adding up macros. It's all laid out for you. Do this with every meal and shake recipe you like. At night, try some chocolate Metabolic Drive® Protein blended with natural peanut butter and maybe a little cottage cheese. If you like that concoction (my favorite, by the way), name the shake "Bedtime Shake" and transfer the totals to the second pad.

Like your protein shake with bananas and strawberries in it? Then weigh the fruit, figure the calories and macros of the whole shake and write it on pad number two. The next time you make that shake, it'll take 30 seconds instead of four minutes.

Note: For fruits and some meats, you may need to consult a nutrition book which will have all the numbers you'll need. You can find these in any bookstore and maybe online.

After a few weeks of this, you'll have dozens of meal ideas with everything pre-calculated. After doing several different types of diet, you'll have meals planned that fit a variety of goals. If you want, you can even type them up and label them "Low Carb/High Fat Meals," "High Carb/Low Fat Meals," "T-Dawg Diet Meals," etc. Some have gone as far as laminating them and keeping them handy in a binder. Not a bad idea (though I've never been that anal.)

After several weeks and couple of different diets you're getting to be an expert when it comes to how your body reacts to calorie manipulation, fat, carbs, etc. You've probably learned how carb sensitive you are and how well you can oxidize fats. You now have a pretty good idea of your maintenance intake of calories and how much or how little you can eat to gain or lose weight. Now it's time to simplify.

The first thing I want you to do is stop counting fat grams. Unless you're stuck in 1980s, you know that fat doesn't necessarily make you fat and it can even be good for you, especially if you're trying to put on muscle. (Very low fat diets can lower your Testosterone levels.) So as long as you're eating pretty much the same foods each week (and most of us do when on a diet), then forget about fat grams.

Personally, I try to get mostly "good" fats from flax oil, Udo's Choice, fish oil, natural peanut butter etc., but a little saturated fat from beef and eggs is fine. You may notice that I'll eat whole eggs but use fat free cheese. Seems odd, but this is just how I keep the "bad" fats under control. Basically, with dietary fat, I don't sweat the details. Neither should you.

The next step in the simplification process is to stop counting grams of protein. Yep, you read that right. First, make sure you're meeting or exceeding your protein goals. For dieting, you'll want at least a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (maybe a bit less if on a keto diet) and for a mass phase you'll need anywhere from 1.5 to 2 grams per pound.

So let's say you're dieting and weight 210. You'll want a minimum of 210g of protein per day. If, for the last several weeks, you've always reached that mark or exceeded it, then why bother logging it anymore? (Just don't radically change what you eat every day.) As an example, during my last Androsol cycle my goal was to take in 350g of protein each day. The first day I fell short, but the rest of the week I exceeded my target number. So during the second week, I stopped logging protein intake.

Since I'm pretty sensitive to carbs, I always keep logging calories and carbohydrates. But you could also apply the above ideas and gradually stop logging them as well. Just use your menus from legal pad #2 and you'll do fine.

Even though this method of food logging gets easy towards the end, it's still a pain to do every single day. Break the monotony with one free day or a free meal per week.

There are two opposing theories on the free day concept. One side says to go all out and satisfy every craving you've had all week. If that means pizza and beer, then great, have pizza and beer and make sure it's an all-you-can-eat buffet. There's no way to count calories anyway, so why bother? A free day may be one step back, but the rest of the week will be six steps forward. Plus, you stay sane and will be more likely to stick with your plan the rest of the week.

The other side of the argument, with many of these ideas coming from Bill Roberts, says that you should also pay attention to your weekly caloric intake. Pigging out all day Saturday and getting 12,000 calories may negate all those 2300 calorie days you had during the week, thus royally screwing up your diet. Sure, eat a little more one or two days per week, but be in control and eat healthy.

Who's right? I think it depends on the individual. Some can get away with a weekend Roman feast, while others are better off having a modified free meal. When I'm trying to lose fat as fast (and as safely) as possible, I choose the latter. Sure, I'll go to a nice restaurant and eat a good meal, but I'll pass on dessert and have salad instead of fried appetizers or bread. If I decide to reward myself with some Ben & Jerry's "Phish Food," I'll buy one of those little containers because I know if I buy a gallon, I'll eat a gallon!

Just experiment with the weekly free day or free meal and see what works best for you.

I don't like the words "instinctive eating" all that much. After all, as I type this my instincts tell me that I could be missing a key nutrient in my diet, and the only way to get that very important nutrient is to consume large quantities of chimichangas, that wonderful Tex-Mex treat. (Hint: Tex-Mex means you take regular Mexican food and deep fry it. Yee haw!) Something tells me my instincts may be lying to me.

Instinctive eating still takes self-control, but once you've kept a food log for a long period of time, you start to develop that sense of control. These days, I still use a food log about half the time, especially when I'm trying a new diet. The rest of the time I eat what I feel I need at that stage of my plan. If the mirror and scale tell me I'm on the right track, then I don't sweat the food log.

If my progress is waning or nothing is happening, I bust out the legal pads and go to work. Same goes if I catch myself slipping. I love a good bulking diet, but honestly I can go overboard if I don't watch myself. Recording food intake for a couple of days keeps me on track.

It took me about five years to listen to what I'd been hearing since I started weight training. The first five years you train should be your most productive because of the fabled "newbie gains" and the fact that you're starting out very far from any genetic limitation.

The funny thing is, I've made my best gains in the last five years of training, which just happen to coincide with how long I've been keeping a food log. Those gains came from informed training decisions, better supplements, and most importantly, accepting the fact that food is the ultimate anabolic tool. Keeping a nutrition log is your key to using it.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram