For most people, the word diet is a loathed four letter word. It connotes calorie restriction, bland food, and guilt. This is mainly because of the way the diet industry chooses to operate and spread their message. It’s an industry based on selling products like meals in a box, supplements, and wacky quick fix methods like cleanses and detoxes. They thrive based on the fact that many people do not have a true grasp of the principles of diet and what works for them. Real, useful information coupled with some experience at implementing quality nutrition is a death knell to that industry. When a person is able to arm themselves with quality knowledge and do a little tinkering on their own, they are forever freed from the diet industry. What’s more, it is so much easier than you think. And not only is it easy, but once you get rolling on the right track, you can get away with a lot of shenanigans (aka pizza, ice cream, and booze) as long as you follow a few simple steps. One of the key factors that makes it possible get lean and stay lean while still enjoying life is the highly adaptable nature of the human body.
Our Bodies Are Built to Adapt
There are hundreds of processes going on in our body every second of the day that require regulation. All of these processes need to exist within a healthy range in order for us to function well and survive. Whether it’s heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, blood volume, hormone levels, or calories in/calories out, our body is well attuned to making micro adjustments all day long to keep us healthy. Just think of it like the most highly advanced automatic thermostat on the planet. In terms of what we eat versus what we burn, this process of constant adaptation was literally life saving for our ancestors. Way back in the day before you could grub a double double and a vanilla latte on every corner, hunting wild game with a stick may have been your best chance at a solid meal for a few days. Your best option was to feast on as much of the hunted animal as you could before it went rotten and then try to survive on collected grubs, roots, and berries until the next big meal came along.
That caveman that looks like Sean Penn is loving his feast
The cavemen (and cave ladies) who survived best in this type of environment were those with highly adaptable metabolisms that could regulate calorie burning based on how much food was available. When food became sparse during prolonged fasts between successful hunts, their bodies would go into starvation mode and try to conserve as much energy as possible, dropping their caloric expenditure down quite low. On the other side of the coin, their huge feasts following a hunt up regulated their calorie burning and promoted secretion of hormones like ghrelin and PYY, which decrease appetite. This also kicks your metabolism up and keeps you from entering that starvation mode. Alternating these periods of overeating and undereating with the right food is an ideal way to burn fat and stay lean. Unless you take the Bible VERY seriously, you can make the connection that we’re all descended over millions of years from these human rockstars of evolution who were able to adapt their metabolism and survive despite very lean days, months, and years. And before we go on, no they didn’t die young because of their terrible diets. Their average lifespan was low because of high infant mortality, infectious disease, and other mild stuff like getting eaten by tigers that happens pretty rarely today.
Modern Diets Take Terrible Advantage of Our Adaptable Metabolism
In the modern world, our lifestyle is set up terribly to take advantage of this ability to keep our metabolism adaptable. Since there is always food available, we just continue to eat constantly leaving most people in a caloric excess all the time. All of the mainstream diets miss the boat in the other direction when they create an obsession with counting calories. Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and countless others make it their mission to find out how many calories you burn (which is a nebulous concept anyway) and make sure you eat less than that every single day. A sure sign that they learned nothing from our great grandparents from a million years ago, this is a fantastic way to convince your body that it’s being starved and cause a down regulation of calorie burning while decreasing secretion of appetite suppressing hormones. So you’ll essentially be hungry all the time and incredibly tired and cranky from your down regulated metabolism that is hording calories to keep you from dying. And you’re likely malnourished from too little nutrients. Oh and did I mention you also get to eat bland, crappy, microwaved food every day out of a box and pay a premium for it? Oh yeahhhhh sign me up.
It’s Time to Cycle Your Meals
Let me make this as simple as possible: If you want to get lean and stay lean while being healthy and still indulging and overeating from time to time, just do pretty much what our ancestors did. Let’s follow the story of a modern day hunter/bro. To prep for the hunt (which takes place at 24 Hour Fitness), have a little pick me up shake of protein powder and milk. Then go after the weights hard like you’re trying to take down big game with heavy lifts and some intense bodyweight circuits for an hour total. Then celebrate the victory by gorging on a big steak and sweet potatoes or maybe a protein style double double and fries. Then just for fun, have a bowl of ice cream with strawberries after dinner. The next day there’s no hunt, so the order of the day is moderation with a little pull back on the calorie load. It starts with a solid breakfast of eggs, bacon, a little fruit, and some black coffee. Then a nice meat salad with all the fixins for lunch. For dinner, make up a couple well filled fish tacos with guacamole, tomatoes, and lettuce. Now those are meals I can get on board with.
A good postworkout hunter-bro meal
It all makes intuitive sense. Our ancestors were forced to evolve to eat in these types of patterns alternating big meals with extended lean times. The survivors were the ones who had metabolisms that could adapt quickly to these conditions. If we take a few steps to mimic their ways of eating, we can get our bodies a little more well aligned with how we’ve evolved over a couple million years. It seems crazy not to take advantage of the thousands of generations of tinkering and perfecting that evolution has done with our bodies, right? Right.
To deepen our knowledge a bit more, let’s look at the concept of intermittent fasting (IF). This movement has been gaining serious steam in the the last few decades and there is some good research and a ton of anecdotal evidence to support its efficacy. The basic protocol of IF is to pick a decent sized window during the day and only eat during that particular period. If you go with an 8 hour window, you might choose to eat from 2PM – 10PM every day. This will eliminate breakfast and any midday meal other than a late lunch, giving you a period of 16 straight hours of fasting. It sounds crazy, but it can actually be very convenient for people who are too busy to make certain meals during the day. And when you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint, every day your body is getting in the equivalent of a post-hunt feeding frenzy that will boost your metabolism followed by an extended period of fasting. During the feed you’ll be able to bump up your appetite supressing hormones like ghrelin and PYY, which will serve you very well during the 16 hour fasting window. IF may sound insane, but for the sake of your body and health go check out Martin Berkhan’s site, Leangains. This guy is the grand master of IF and hangs out at 7% bodyfat on a regular basis while eating cheesecake and drinking alcohol weekly. And if you read his own transformation, you’ll see that he’s anything but a freak of nature when it comes to staying lean. At the very least, look at his most recent client testimonial and then tell me this stuff doesn’t interest you. Even if you can’t do it perfectly, try starting out every other day or do it with smaller fasting windows.
Listen to Martin
Intermittent fasting and meal cycling can truly be powerful. My friend Tyler started working out with me and a few other guys consistently before Thanksgiving of last year. Since then, Tyler has been very motivated in the gym, keeps good records of his training, and thrives in our group workout environment. He was committed to losing weight and very early took to the concepts of intermittent fasting by reading a lot of Martin Berkhan’s work and broadening his knowledge base. He’s always enjoyed cooking and has had a good grasp of what is and isn’t quality food, but the extra push to meal cycling and IF was what he needed to bring it all together. Since the beginning of November, Tyler has lost 33 pounds while taking his back squat from 185×8 to 250×8 and his deadlift from 265×3 to 305×3. Given the strength gains, I’m convinced he’s added a good amount of muscle, which makes for a phenomenal transformation in body composition in three and a half months when you consider the amount of weight he’s lost.
All this time, we’ve been training no more than 3 times a week for 1 hour each with a mix of intense barbell and kettlebell work topped off with bodyweight conditioning circuits and sprinting. Over-exercising is not the answer. If your diet sucks, beating the crap out of yourself in the gym every day of the week to lose weight is like shooting a BB gun at a freight train. What makes these concepts even more attractive is that Tyler didn’t even need to really deprive himself of anything. This entire time, he’s been enjoying himself on the weekends with friends, having drinks, eating less than perfect meals, and going to concerts and bars. In this case, the entire weekend kind of acts like one big post-hunt feast going back to the analogy of the caveman. This brings us to the big take home….
Make the Weekend Your Big Feast
Here’s where we really learn how to have our cake and eat it too. Everyone likes to have a good time and let loose on the weekend. With the regimentation most people are subjected to during the week, you’d go crazy after a while if you couldn’t blow off steam Friday through Sunday. Done right, this involves bars, restaurants, booze, late night food, old friends, new friends, and new places. Trying to stick to a regimented diet through all of this is liable to wind you up inside more than sitting in the same office for 40 hours a week. So here’s the short answer…don’t stick to a diet through all this.
Instead, just get really good at being good during the week. Treat the week like those lean times for the cavemen after the post-hunt feast is over. You don’t need to eat grubs and berries, but you need to keep it pretty classy. The key for you is going to be food that keeps you full. This means meat, eggs, olive oil, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Mix in the occasional side of rice, potatoes, or corn tortilla, but just enough to keep meals interesting. Get good with herbs, spices, and condiments. Refined sugar, refined flour, and processed food in general will kick your ass if you’re trying to keep calories and cravings in check. They’re a gateway drug to everything at AM/PM. You will be a very unhappy camper if you eat a lot of processed carbohydrates. Don’t ruin all this sweet knowledge we picked up from our ancestors by building your meals around bagels, hot pockets, and sprite during the week. Bite the bullet and get used to eating lowish carb, protein based meals that involve real food. At any given time, you’re never more than about 4 days from being able to eat just about anything you want. So please, use that giant forebrain of yours and use a little self restraint.
Eat mostly this stuff during the week. Simple, right?
If you can get into a solid weekly meal pattern consistently, you can go to town on the weekends. And I mean crush. Whether your pleasure is a ten course, 4 star meal or a 4 pack of bacon wrapped hot dogs at 3AM, the world is your oyster (which you can also eat a few dozen of if you’d like). Pick out a 48 hour window and use that as your goalpost. One of the windows that I like a lot is Friday at 5PM through Sunday at 5PM. This way you have Friday happy hour and all night in addition to all day Saturday and Sunday brunch to get in your weekly cravings. Once Sunday dinner rolls around and you get back on track, you’ll probably be delighted to see some vegetables and a healthy cut of meat for the first time in a few days.
I’ll tell you with absolute conviction that for maximizing both enjoyment of life and effectiveness for losing fat, this type of diet blows everything else out of the water. In fact, bodybuilders even use a very similar strategy called the Anabolic Diet, which allows them to continue to gain muscle and size while staying very lean. There are a few more rules and restrictions, but it operates on the same principles and most of us aren’t looking to get on a bodybuilding stage in the near future anyway. Additionally, this diet makes good use of the regimentation of most people’s lives. Developing some solid eating habits during the week when we have set routines and eating times is much easier than trying to make it work during the hectic weekend days.
I’ll be doing a follow up post soon to dive a little deeper into some of the types of food and meals that fit well with keeping things clean during the week. I’m sure you all can figure out the weekend meals on your own.