The Greatest Nutritional Complaint

"Are you kidding, JB? You expect me to eat this stuff? Where's the taste? Where's the variety!?"

This is by far the nutritional complaint I hear most often from clients, athletes and seminar attendees. Ever since I first starting publishing articles on T-Nation six years ago, I've been bombarded with this complaint. And over the past two years, I've probably gotten at least one angry email a day, basically saying the exact same thing:

"This stuff is boring and tastes freakin' terrible! Give me better food choices!"

To be honest, for the longest time I just dismissed the variety of complaints about variety. Sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me for two reasons:

  1. The "no variety" complaint sounds like just another weak excuse for giving up. People stopped eating well and needed someone to blame. Of course it's not their fault they're overweight. It's their genes. Of course it's not their fault they're not building muscle or recovering properly. It's their job. They can't be expected to eat (gasp!) at work! Of course it's not their fault they've got high blood glucose and high blood pressure. It's that damn JB's boring eating plan!
  2. There's no reason why great nutrition must necessarily mean boring, repetitive meals and bad tasting food. You only need to look to my Berardi's Kitchen articles (Part 1 and Part 2) to see that the variety is almost unlimited. I practice what I preach, and my kitchen has more variety than most others I've seen. And if my kitchen is boring, an exciting kitchen must be some kind of culinary amusement park, a veritable Six Flags of cuisine.

But despite all this, people still complain about variety. Quite frankly, it started to annoy me. So in an effort to squash this complaint once and for all (yeah, right), or at least buy myself a brief reprieve from the anti-boredom coalition's email campaign, I started to investigate the problem a little more seriously.

The first step was an informal survey of former clients of mine. Usually, when a client ends his service tenure with me, I'll send him a questionnaire regarding the experience. Among other things, I want to know why exactly he ended his service so that I can continuously refine my coaching systems to get industry-beating results. I hadn't taken a look at the numbers in a while, so the other day I sat down and got to work.

When the results were in, I was happy to learn that most of my clients (about 83%) had ended for the only reason I accept as good: during their stay with me, they'd learned exactly how to design and monitor their own training and nutrition plans. For my head coach, Carter Schoffer and I, that's our goal in coaching – to make ourselves dispensable.

Once a client has learned how his own body responds to various training and nutrition protocols, he shouldn't need us for anything beyond occasional support and troubleshooting.

But what about the other 17% of clients? Why did they stop? Well, that was the disappointing part. They quit because they got sick of the food. One client in particular remarked, "I don't think I'm cut out to eat such Spartan meals."

Sick of the food? And since when did "Spartan" become a food-related adjective?

Now, let me make something clear: these aren't your average quitters. These are people who got results. These are people who lost fat, gained muscle, dropped 40 yard times, and drastically improved their health – but still quit. They had every reason to stay, every reason to keep going, but still quit because they hated the food.

That's just unacceptable, and as a good coach, I should've recognized how widespread this misunderstanding really was. I've since built questions into the bi-weekly feedback reports I get from clients to spot this problem right away. Where there's smoke, there's fire, and this variety nonsense is blazing out of control.

So what exactly is going on here? Are people just excusing their own laziness, or is there some fundamental flaw in the way they view good nutrition? And if it's the latter, then what is this flaw and how can it be fixed?

Weighty questions indeed, my friends. So let's come up with some answers.

All these years, I've had a standard response to complaints about taste and variety, and it goes something like this:

"Your taste sensation will change. Studies show that eventually you'll lose that sweet tooth and that love of deep friend, trans-fat soaked garbage. Further, you'll grow to prefer natural, healthy, richly textured foods. You'll even grow to like the crunchy freshness of fruits and veggies."

And this comment is absolutely true. The study of taste is fascinating. You see, there are several factors affecting taste, including:

  1. Oral concentrations of different molecules in our foods. Our sense of taste is mediated by groups of cells (our taste buds) which sample oral concentrations of small molecules and report a sensation of taste to our brainstem, the very area of our brain that senses pleasure.
  2. Airborne chemicals inherent to our foods. Since our taste buds only sense bitter, salty, sweet and sour, the remainder of our sense of taste, about 70-75% of what we perceive as taste, actually comes from our sense of smell.
  3. Temperature. The perception of taste also appears to be influenced by thermal stimulation of the tongue. When warmed, the tongue senses sweet; when chilled, it senses salty or sour.
  4. Nutrient Needs. There's some research indicating that certain nutrient deficiencies can affect taste as well, leading to a preference for foods that replenish that nutrient.

For instance, removal of the adrenal glands in rats (which causes massive sodium loss) leads to the preference of salty water over normal water. Removal of the parathyroid glands (which causes calcium loss) leads to the preference of water high in calcium chloride over water with high concentrations of sodium chloride instead. And insulin-induced hypoglycemia leads to the preference of very sweet foods over other equally calorie or carbohydrate dense foods.

Now, this is obviously not the decisive factor. Witness the fat man's preference for Krispy Kreme. Is he Krispy Kreme deficient? I think not. However, it should underline the multi-factorial nature of taste.

Back when we were developing Biotest Surge®, it was the science of taste that allowed us to disguise the naturally bad taste of whey hydrolysate, one of the main ingredients in the formulation.

Have you ever tried to drink whey protein hydrolysate on its own? It must be one of the most wretched tasting compounds in existence. I remember getting an unflavored batch for a research study a few years ago and foolishly deciding to drink it straight up, no chaser. What a mistake. Can you say "projectile vomit?"

Biotest Surge is loaded with whey hydrolysate, and ask anyone, the stuff tastes great! So how did we do it? Well, in developing the formula for Surge, we learned which taste buds sense the nasty whey hydrolysates, then we found specific flavorings that compete for those same taste buds. So every time you use Surge, there's a great race to those taste buds – and thankfully for all involved, the tasty flavorings win.

Here are a few more interesting facts:

  • Women tend to be better "tasters" than men, which may make them more finicky and may allow them to distinguish between 800 types of chocolate.
  • Age leads to losses in taste sensation, leading to a loss in appetite and the desire to eat. That's partly why nutrient deficiencies develop with age.
  • And finally, as mentioned earlier, our sense of taste will change with what we're habitually eating.

Let me stress how important this final point is. I've seen people come to love foods they used to hate, and turn those same foods into their favorite meals. Exhibit A: cottage cheese. Anyone who's done this long enough knows a good cottage cheese flip-flop story. Such a flip-flop can even be induced instantly from time to time, by having the subject taste the famous Cottage Cheese Peanut Butter Cup Concoction: cottage cheese, chocolate-flavored Low-Carb Grow!, and natural peanut butter. This stuff is awesome.

But in the end, this discussion still doesn't get the job done. People still demand variety and "better tasting" foods. So how can we respond to these demands?

I know one thing for sure: I've been doing this for years, day in and day out, and somehow I've managed both to stay large, lean and healthy year round and stave off the "variety" demon. So after being bombarded with my one millionth email castigating me to the depths of nutritional hell, I decided to start paying attention to what I was actually doing with my own diet. Specifically, I began leafing through my own nutritional programs, going back almost two years. I noticed four things:

  1. The main food choices remained roughly the same over that entire period. In other words, I'm consistently eating beef, eggs, beans, nuts, fruits and veggies. I'm not out hunting exotic animals on the plains of the Serengeti and dragging them home for barbeque. (Although I do like my elk. Are there elk on the Serengeti?) For the most part, I eat stuff you can find on the perimeter of your local grocery store.
  2. Although the choices stay the same, the way I prepare those foods rarely stays the same for longer than a few weeks at a time. In terms of which foods are combined and which seasonings and sauces are used, my meals are always changing. For a few weeks I might eat 8oz of lean meat and a spinach, carrot, apple and mixed nut salad (with flax oil and balsamic vinegar on top) for lunch. However, after those few weeks, I might make chili out of those 8oz by including a packet of chili mix, carrots, green and red peppers, onions, cashews and one can of diced tomatoes. With different sauces, seasonings and cooking methods, I can come up with infinite variations of the same staples – as simple or as fancy as I like.
  3. The meals that did stay the same for longer than a few weeks were the "magic bullet meals." Magic bullet meals are those meals that both fit into the nutrition plan and taste so good that I could probably eat them six times a day without growing tired of them. Everyone has a few of these. One meal that's stood the test of time for me is my morning omelet. Every day, for the two year analysis period, I've eaten twelve egg whites, one yolk, one slice of cheese, spinach and one or two other omelet ingredients. Next to my omelet is a nice bowl of fresh fruit. I sometimes even eat this meal twice per day.
  4. When I want to eat food that's not on my plan, I save it for my "cheat ritual." Almost every Sunday night, I get together with a bunch of the guys and eat whatever the hell I want: pizza, ice cream, beer, whatever. As you might imagine, these are serious events, attended only by like-minded individuals.

For instance, here's what Carter ate last weekend: one extra-large pepperoni pizza, two Oreo ice cream cookies, one-third of a rather large chocolate cake, one package of Clodhoppers, a pint of Guinness and a spinach salad (just to keep it clean). I'll refrain from sharing my menu; I don't want to frighten off the women and children. But by Monday morning, we're all back in business.

So what does this mean? Well, for one, my "palettization" theory was only partially correct. To really account for how I've been able to do this, I've parsed out four basic rules, one from each of the observations above.

The Rules

The reality is that you're going to have to eat certain foods; there's no way to get around it. But who cares? They're easy to get accustomed to, especially if you prepare them right. Keep in mind that your sense of taste can and will change over time, as long as you practice the right habits and stick to the staples.

So what are the staples? Well, for a complete treatment of this, check out the "Berardi's Kitchen" articles I mentioned above. But here's the short version:

  • Lean Protein Sources: beef, chicken, turkey, fish, etc.
  • Fruits: berries, apples, pineapple, pears, peaches, plums, etc.
  • Vegetables: spinach, sweet peppers, carrots, broccoli, onions, etc.
  • Essential Fatty Acids: olive oil, flaxseed oil, fish oil.
  • Supplemental Carbohydrate: oatmeal, sweet potatoes, whole grain bread.

You'll also have to eliminate the "never-haves," or at least relegate them to cheat meals. So what are the "never-haves?"

  • Anything found in Carter's cheat ritual meal!

To succeed in the long term, you'll have to keep the staples constant. The foods mentioned in Rule 1 will always be a part of your diet. How then do you keep from being bored?

Answer: Learn to cook!

Now, I don't mean to suggest that you should enroll in a culinary school or waste your days watching Emeril. I do mean to suggest that you need to know a little about flavoring and preparing food. Not a lot, mind you, just enough to prevent stagnation and keep your taste buds from withering away.

I'm honestly amazed by what bad cooks most people are. Basic cooking is just that – basic – and would take you no longer than a few hours to learn. More importantly, it'll make all the difference between nutritional success and failure.

Think about it. For most people, much of the food they eat is cooked for them: fast food, prepackaged or preflavored. How else can we account for the 157 pounds of sugar the average American eats per year? That's about half a pound a day, folks! They're not shoveling down teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar – this sugar is being systematically hidden in the foods they're eating!

We need better solutions. Here are a few:

  1. Read Ken Kinnan's Massive Cooking. Great introduction to the topic, and it's free.
  2. Get some cooking tips from someone who knows, i.e., your mother. If you have one of those modern mothers who knows even less than you do, go a little further up the family tree and ask your grandmother. Take what info you can apply to your own nutrition program and discard the rest. You'd be surprised that a spice here and there can change the meal completely.
  3. Go to your local bookstore and grab a few basic cookbooks. Most meals can be modified to fit the plan by removing or substituting ingredients, and knowing the difference between rosemary and thyme will help you decide which to add. The goal is to build up a mental database of good meals you can make at any time, and to get some inspiration when the meals start getting a little tiresome.
  4. Stop by the newsstand and pick up a food magazine or, better yet, pick up a subscription. (And if buying girlie cooking magazines is embarrassing for you, you can send your girlfriend. It's okay.) The regular arrival of new ideas will remind you that boredom isn't a valid excuse.
  5. Plug Alert: If you want something that specifically addresses the problem from the perspective of optimal nutrition, grab a copy of my new e-book, Gourmet Nutrition. Dr. John K. Williams (one of the best healthy cooks on the planet) and I have put together over 100 great meals and all the cooking instruction you need. Sure, I'm biased, but these meals are awesome!

With these resources at your disposal, there's no excuse for "variety complaints." Get out there and start cooking. Stock your kitchen with the right foods, then mix and match to keep things lively.

Sometimes it's not lack of variety that causes people to bail on good nutrition. In fact, often it's the very idea that variety is necessary that causes the problem. While I agree that you need to have all your nutritional bases covered, I want to dispel the myth that good nutrition requires you to come up with a completely new meal every time you eat.

Here's the strategy: find one or two "magic bullet meals" – meals that fit into your plan and taste so good you could eat them every day – and eat them every day! Eat them twice a day if you have to. Don't miss a meal or break your plan when you could simply double up on the best meal of the day.

As for the rest of the meals, you'll need to constantly change them to stave off the dreaded boredom, according to Rule 2. Remember, keep the staples constant, but continually experiment with combinations, cooking, and flavoring.

No, this isn't some adultery ceremony. This is the preferred method for eating never-have foods without blowing the plan. Now, my general rule on cheating is this: make sure that no more than 10% of your meals are missed or cheat meals. So if you're eating six meals a day, seven days a week (for a total of 42 meals per week), then no more than four of those meals should be misses or cheats. If you can achieve 90% adherence – and anyone can, it doesn't require "Spartan" discipline – you can get the results you want.

The catch, however, is that the 10% rule allows you to eat unplanned cheat meals. You know how that goes: "Well, that pizza does look good, but I should stick to the plan and eat the chicken salad . . . oh what the hell, gimme the pizza! I'll just consider it a cheat meal."

Now, this isn't necessarily a problem. If you have the discipline to keep your cheat meals to under about four per week, you can have them whenever you want. The problem arises when you allow a spontaneous, unplanned cheat meal to set off a chain of events (first pizza, then dessert, then fast food, etc.) that ends up in a nutritional derailment. Unfortunately, this happens more often than people care to admit, particularly in the early stages of a new plan.

It's better to plan your cheat meals. And even better would be to plan them around a social event (like a weekly get-together with the crew, a weekly restaurant night with your significant other, etc.), and ideally with social support (i.e., like-minded people to whom this event means as much as it does to you).

For the same reason you have training partners in the gym, you should find nutrition partners who can keep you going down the right path. Then, schedule a weekly get-together where you eat whatever you want – understanding that what you're eating is the exception, not the rule.

Incidentally, I think people immediately identify with the concept of "refeeding" (weekly breaks from otherwise strict diets) for this very reason. The psychological advantage of planning cheat meals is significant and is perhaps the primary reason for the popularity of the various refeeding diets.

I'll add, though, that turning a cheat meal into an entire "cheat weekend," as is sometimes advocated, will almost certainly slow your progress during a dieting phase. Unless there are other issues, I'll usually keep it to a half-day or less, so as to stay within the 10% zone. I've found that this is pretty close to an optimal balance between progress and psychological willingness to keep eating well.

I want this "variety" excuse eradicated. So in the discussion below, I want T-Nation readers to post:

  1. Tips and tricks to maintaining good nutrition over the long run.
  2. Your own personal "magic bullet meals," the ones you could eat twice a day if need be.
  3. Your own cheating rituals.

If one of your biggest nutritional complaints is the variety one, it's high time you did something about it. Stop emailing me, pick one of the suggestions above (or below) and get moving. The solution is right in your kitchen!

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.