The Top 10 Rules of Lean Eating
At this point, nearly everyone understands that diet is more important than training when it comes to overall health and weight loss. The common statement is “you can’t out train a bad diet.” I would tend to agree. That being said, the eternal question still remains… what is the best diet to be minimize body fat and maximize health and longevity?
During my 7 years as a fitness professional, and throughout my life in battling weight gain, I’ve read just about every diet book out there and tried just about every nutrition system too.
The other day one of my buddies from high school, D.A. Wallach, the lead singer of Chester French and the artist in residence at Spotify, sent me an email sharing some of what he’s learned in the many nutrition books he’s read.
What he sent me was quite insightful. Not surprising since D.A. is a Harvard grad and one of the sharpest, most talented guys I know. It got me thinking about the top 10 things I’ve learned about nutrition over the years and I shot D.A. an email reply with just that.
With the start of the StreamFIT SweatFEST on Monday, January 21st, this blog post could not be more timely. I personally guarantee that if you internalize these 10 rules of lean eating you will reach your fitness goals faster than ever before and you will be leaner and healthier than 99% of the North American population.
The Top 10 Rules of Lean Eating
1.) Just about every sound, whole foods diet can work – Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Intermittent Fasting (IF), etc. - as long as you’re in a caloric deficit most of the time and you eat for your body type, personality, and activity level.
I’ve met a lot of shredded people and it seems like every one of them eats a little bit differently. However, they are all very active and tend to be in a caloric deficit most of the time. The key is finding a maintainable nutrition plan that works for YOU.
If you’re prone to weight gain and/or have an ancestry from a polar climate, you’ll probably do best with a higher protein and fat diet focusing on mostly veggies and a little bit of fruit for your carbs and very minimal starches and sugars. This style of eating is also best for those who are more sedentary or are trying to shed unwanted body fat.
If you have trouble gaining weight and/or have an ancestry from an equatorial climate, you’ll probably do best with a moderate protein and fat diet and can get away with more overall carbs including whole grains and even some unrefined starches and sugars pre/post-exercise. This style of eating is also best for those who are very active or are trying to increase lean muscle mass.
But overall, calories still seem to be king, no matter what style of eating you choose. That’s why the best diet for staying lean tends to be one that naturally forces you to restrict your daily caloric intake without too much work (more on this later regarding The 8-Hour Diet and Intermittent Fasting).
2.) Being lean doesn’t mean being healthy though being lean certainly does help.
Genetics play the largest role in determining how much fat you start with and just how fat you can get (or how lean you can get). In addition, many of us are genetically predisposed to certain illnesses and diseases that even the best diet can’t prevent. That being said, the latest research indicates that fat is an organ in and of itself, releasing its own hormones designed to make you fatter. The more fat you have the fatter you will get so you really just can’t be a little bit fat because in due time you will end up being “a lot a bit” fat (especially as you get older). Bottom line- all things being equal, the less body fat you have the healthier you will be.
3.) Eat lots of veggies, as many as you want. Nobody can argue with that.
Veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and anti-oxidants and are the absolute best carbs you can eat. I personally don’t believe you need to count veggie carbs into your daily totals (that’s if you even count carbs or calories in the first place) and I’ve always recommended you can eat an UNLIMITED number of veggies day in and day out.
Veggies are also key in the food volume game, filling your stomach up as fast as possible with as little calories and as many nutrients as possible to prevent overeating and unwanted caloric surpluses. The green veggies provide the most benefits but be sure to gets lots of different colors on your plate throughout the day. If you get the urge to nosh, nosh on veggies instead of crap in a box or can.
One of the quickest ways to shred up is to swap veggies for starches with the meals you usually eat until you hit your goal weight or body fat percentage. A plate full of veggies and leafy green salads at every meal is probably the most important thing you can do to increase the quality and quantity of your life.
If you struggle with consuming veggies, consider a whole foods-based greens drink sweetened with stevia like GENESIS from Prograde Nutrition:
4.) Eat a little bit of fruit- less if you’re sedentary, more if you’re very active. Consider fruit to be nature’s dessert.
No one can argue that fruit provides a ton of health benefits. You could say that eating fruit will certainly make you healthier. There’s only one problem- fruit does contain a significant amount of sugar. Consider fruits to be a more sugary form of veggies.
Herein lies the problem with eating a more sugary form of veggies: if you barely move all day then that extra sugar will most likely be stored as body fat since it’s unused energy. Since most people are desk jockeys, most people would be better off eating more veggies than fruit.
The best fruits to choose are the ones higher in fiber like berries, apples, and bananas. Many experts will tell you to choose fruits with a lower Glycemic Index (GI) or even a lower Insulin Index (II). Personally, I don’t think you need to make it this complicated. Like with veggies, the wider variety of fruits with many different colors the better as each offers unique benefits.
If I could only recommend one fruit, it would be organic mixed berries due to their insanely awesome combo of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals. Throw them in your oatmeal or in your protein shake or dollop some whipped cream on top for a little dessert.
Which brings me to my next point: consider fruit to be nature’s dessert. Evolutionary scientists believe that the sugar in fruit was put there to make us want to eat these nutrient-dense, fibrous foods. If you eat well, fruit should taste very sweet, like a dessert, and one should never overindulgence in dessert, right? I should also note that if fruit does NOT taste sweet to you then you most likely have a horrible diet loaded with refined/added sugars.
In conclusion, eat more veggies than fruit, especially if you are inactive or have a sedentary job. Limit your servings of fruit to 1 cup or 1 piece (depending on the fruit). Treat fruit like nature’s dessert and like any dessert, only eat it if you earn it.
5.) Choose as many different protein sources that works for you and have some every time you eat: plant-based, animal-based or both
I’d be lying if I said I don’t LOVE to eat meat. A big 24-oz. porterhouse steak with sauteed greens and mushrooms is probably one of my favorite meals on the planet. Plus, the only reason I still go to Disney World is to consume one or two of their famous Turkey Legs (or as I call them T-Legs).
For years I’ve followed more of caveman type diet (you could call it Paleo if you prefer) eating mostly meats and veggies. Animal protein is considered by many nutrition experts to be the best source of protein because it provides the complete blend of essential amino acids that our body can only get from diet. Great sources of animal protein include grass-fed beef, omega-3 eggs, fish and seafood, cage-free chicken and turkey, and various dairy proteins like greek yogurt and full-fat cheese.
That being said, nobody can deny that animal sources of protein (meat in particular) have a huge environmental footprint. If you’ve ever seen movies like “Food Inc.” and “Forks Over Knives” then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Whether you want to do it for the animals or do it for the planet (or both) we all should consider doing our part and reducing our total animal protein intake whenever possible.
I for one have committed to reducing my meat intake to 1 or 2 days per week in 2013, still eating cage-free omega-3 eggs each day along with a mix of plant-based protein sources like beans/legumes and nuts/nut butters. I guess you could call it being a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian 5 out of 7 days each week. I also supplement with 10 grams of Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) pre-workout and with 50 g of stevia-sweetened whey protein powder post-workout (I love Prograde Protein Powder). I also throw this protein powder into my oatmeal mixed with berries, bananas, cherries, flax meal and peanut butter.
Probably the most underrated protein source on the planet is beans. Honestly, I’m starting to think beans may even be better than meat because beans provide both protein and fiber, the 2 powerhouse nutrients for curbing hunger and staying lean. Beans are also a lot cheaper than meat and are easier to prepare throughout the week.
In terms of meal planning and preparation, be sure to make a big batch of chili (meatless or veggie based on your preferences) each and every week as it can supply a bunch of ready to go nutritious meals throughout the weak. If you go with veggie chilli, add a ton of other fleshy veggies like mushrooms to give it a meatier taste.
In terms of fast-food options, look no further than a naked taco salad (no rice or tortillas) at Chipotle for a high protein, high fiber meal that’s less than $10. I load mine up with beans, veggies, and guacamole (and meat if I’m eating meat that day).
Whether you’re a carnivore or a vegan, be sure to get some protein at every meal (at least 20-30 grams worth). Try to eat as much animal-friendly, environmentally-responsible protein as possible throughout the week.
6.) Drinks lots of water and tea and a little bit of coffee but never consume liquid calories. Go as easy as possible on artificially-sweetened beverages as you can.
As they say you can go without eating for weeks (even months in some cases) but if you went without water for a couple of days you’d die. Yea, water is our liquid life force and we need to drink lots of it to be healthy (it flushes out toxins and transports nutrients throughout our bodies) and energized (dehydration is the number one factor for decreased performance). Drink 1-2 cups of water for every 15-30 minutes of activity and get into the habit of sipping on water throughout the day. Consider adding cuts of citrus or cucumbers into your water to spice it up and make it easier for you to drink more of it.
I like to drink 2-4 cups of water immediately upon waking just to get off to a good start. Since thirst and hunger are both regulated by the same part of our brain (hypothalmus) often we confuse hunger for thirst. So the next time you think you’re hungry drink a bunch of water and wait 5-10 minutes and then re-assess. Also be sure to drink 1-2 cups of water with every meal to fill you up faster and compete for space in your stomach so you don’t eat too many calories.
Both coffee and tea provide a water-based form of energy and anti-oxidants so be also drink them liberally, hot or cold. However, don’t blow it by adding artificial sweeteners or sugar or too much dairy. Try to drink more tea than coffee since you don’t want to OD on caffeine and throw off your sleeping patterns.
Probably the simplest and most powerful fat-burning rule to follow is avoid all liquid calories like the plague. No fruit juices, sports drinks, or sodas, EVER! It’s just sugar water with zero nutritional value and often loaded with high-fructose corn syrup that will make you fat and give you diabetes if abused long enough. The one exception to this rule is for elite athletes and marathoners but even then they drink this stuff during intensive and/or prolonged activity.
Plus, artificially-sweetened drinks like diet soda are most likely cancer in a can so please try to limit these to once or twice a week when going out to a restaurant and don’t buy any for home. I find that club soda (or seltzer water) has served as a crucial substitute in helping me kick my diet soda addiction. I also like the natural stevia-sweetened brand of soda called ZEVIA for this too.
7.) There’s never a reason to add sugar to your food and if you don’t consume foods with added sugar, you’ll most likely never be fat.
Not much to say here besides that the only sugar you should eat is what’s already found in whole foods in their natural, unrefined form. Eat fruit, not candied fruit. Eat oatmeal, not sweetened oatmeal. You should never add sugar to your food or drinks. By simply avoiding added sugar (especially the refined versions) you will give yourself the best chance of getting and staying lean for life- TRUST!
8.) You can’t look healthy and youthful (hair, skin, etc.) or be satisfied without lots of natural fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, eggs, etc.
Natural fats are critical for overall health and performance and actually help our bodies burn more fat for fuel. They also help make meals taste better and help keep us full for longer. Plus many key hormones in our body depend on dietary fat and essential fats like Omega-3′s power our brains.
The best natural fats include extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), whole omega-3 eggs, flax meal, avocados, nuts, nut butters, and fatty meat and fish. These foods will make your hair and skin look healthier, make your heart pump better, and make your joints feel more supple and lubricated.
Simple ways to add healthy fats into your meals include:
- Cook your eggs and veggies with EVOO and use EVOO for salad dressing along with vinegars
- Throw some nuts/nut butters and flax meal into your oatmeal and protein shakes
- Eat a small handful of nuts with some fruits/veggies as a snack
- Eat the WHOLE egg (yes the yolks) not just the whites
- Throw some avocado (or guacamole) onto just about anything, especially salads
Avoid synthetic trans fats like the plague. The easiest way to do this is to avoid eating baked goods, most deep-fried food, and pretty much anything in a box or bag that has a ridiculously long shelf life.
9.) At least once a week, eat something that makes your day/week, whatever that may be.
The point is to eat to live, not to live to eat. That being said food remains one of the most important parts of just about every culture and has powerful social implications that we simply cannot ignore. If you eat perfectly most of the time then it’s okay to be imperfect every once in a while as long as you can get back on track. The exception to the rule here is if you have a very specific goal with a tight deadline or if you have trigger foods that make you insatiable.
In general, once a week eat a food or meal that makes your week. A reward meal is better than a reward day since the day-version tends to be a slippery slope and can get out of hand pretty quickly. Many people have success with confining their reward meals to a specific period of time like 2-4 hours. Experiment and find what works best for you.
Oh yea- if you don’t need a reward meal, don’t use it. Sometimes it make sense to go without one for a prolonged period of time to develop good habits and stay the course until you reach your goal. But if you find yourself on edge with food controlling your mind, then a little break here and there may be productive. Just be sure to not just eat crap and include lots of the good stuff that you normally eat.
Last thing- keep the crap out of the house and save your cheats/treats for going out to restaurants or parties where you can leave the temptations there.
10.) One of the quickest ways to improve your health and lose weight is to spend more time in a fasted state and less time in a fed state.
The more you limit your eating to a specific period of time the more your body will burn fat throughout the day and the easier it is to control your caloric intake (be it 8-hours, 10-hours, or 12-hours). However, the more total time you spend in a fasted state and the less total time you spend in a fed state the leaner, healthier, and more energized you will be.
This style of eating is often referred to as Intermittent Fasting (IF) and loads of research now point to the following benefits:
- More stable energy throughout the day
- Less creation of cancer cells
- Easier on the digestive system
- Greater release of growth hormone which aids in fat-burning, muscle-building, and anti-aging
- More fat-burning (and use of body fat for energy) throughout the day
Plus, skipping breakfast also opens up more time for you in the morning to get more sleep and/or knock out a workout or take a walk immediately upon waking (which helps accelerate the fat-burning process of being in a fasted state).
I personally find that eating 2-3 meals (or 2 meals and a small snack in between lunch and dinner) during an 8-hour window to be the best nutrition plan that works for me. Experiment with this to find out what works best for you and maybe start by doing this every other day in the beginning to ease you into the transition. My bet is that eventually you’ll end up doing it up to 6 out of 7 days of the week. I still like to have 1 day of the week when I can eat before noon and after 8 pm for a little bit of flexibility.
For a great resource explaining the benefits of Intermittent Fasting (and how to best implement it), check out the brand-new 8-Hour Diet by Men’s Health:
I was lucky to contribute the bonus chapter on 8-minute workouts to this book and I have personally used this style of eating over the last year or so. The results- I have never been leaner, nor more energized. I highly recommend you at least give this style of eating a shot, especially if you find that eating tends to make you hungrier (some of you know exactly what I’m talking about).
One thing I will say is that I always eat my best on days when I am most active. Conversely, I always eat my worst on days I am most inactive. I wonder why?
Food is a drug and is the hardest addiction to break because it’s in your face every where you look and you can’t go a day without eating. It’s easy to prejudge the overweight and obese unless you look at it from their perspective (or if you have yourself been overweight or obese in the past). Go into this with the mindset that this is hard and it will take some time to overcome boredom and emotional eating. It’s taken me years to finally grab a hold of my addition to food and still to this day I have to fight some occasional battles to stay the course. But as say they say, you may lose some battles but if you stay committed to the long-haul you will win the war.
Thanks for reading and I hope you find this to be insightful. Please share with your friends, family, and anybody else whom you feel may benefit from this article.