In an endless and long search for the best way to eat to build muscle, I’ve experimented with over a dozen different diets.
Not everyone enjoys staying disciplined with one eating approach after the next for 20 years in a row. So today I’ll share my takeaways – so you can skip to the good part.
What Makes Diets Work?
We all have different definitions of success when it comes to eating and our bodies. However, most people are looking for answers to similar questions:
- Can I achieve my desired body with this approach to eating?
- Does this approach give me enough energy to enjoy my life and move the way I want to move?
- Is this approach easy enough to follow, despite the complexities and nutritional temptations of modern life?
If this sums up success, I’ve achieved it – and lost it – a lot.
Through college, I’d lose 20 lbs. – then fail to hang on. So I’d hop to the next approach, only for the same thing to happen. I tried low cal, paleo, gut health diets, carb cycling, animal based, and a lot in between.
Over time, the peaks and valleys grew smaller. And I realized 5 things that have transformed my approach to food.
If you want more freedom with your food, with more sustainable results, I wrote this for you.
Diets That Worked - And Didn't
Over 20 years, I’ve done a lot of different diets. With full commitment and discipline, I’ve done:
- Low Calorie Meal Planning – College, strict low-calorie meal plan, no variance day to day
- Low Fat High Protein – Remove fat wherever possible, non-fat everything, chicken breasts, eat tons of protein
- Velocity Diet – liquid only diet, 5 protein shakes a day for 30 days, 1 meal of oatmeal and berries on the weekend
- Metabolic Typing – only eat foods that match your “metabolic type”.
- Foodie Diet – travel through Southeast Asia and plan every day around 1 indulgent meal. The rest of the day walk a ton and eat sparingly to save up for the one big feast.
- Unrestricted Paleo – meat, veggies, nuts, seeds, some fruit, and no dairy or grains
- Clean Eating Performance Nutrition – avoid “unhealthy processed” foods. Just eat as much whole foods to support my training performance in CrossFit
- Gut Health Protocol – strictly adhere to foods that helped me heal my digestion along with a complex supplementation protocol to help stop chronic diarrhea
- Intermitted Fasting – Fast for 16 hours a day and eat within an 8-hour window
- Carb Cycling – Follow low-carb macros most days and mix in high-carb macros on the other days. But stick to the macros every day.
- Animal Based – Meat, fruit, raw dairy, honey, and some fermented veggies
- Flexible Dieting – Follow macros closely, eat mostly whole unprocessed foods 90% of the time, and purposefully consume 10% of calories from foods that would normally be deemed “unhealthy” but are delicious and indulgent (pizza, ice cream, cereal)
The first diet I tried wasn’t even a real diet. It was a specific meal plan a bodybuilding friend created for my brother. I snagged a copy and lost 20 lbs. Until my soccer and lifting routine sent me and my peanut butter jar on an extended honeymoon.
Having had abs once, I wasn’t ready to give up. I moved on to the next and it worked! Until it stopped. Over and over again.
But something interesting started to happen around the 6th or 7th diet. The peaks and valleys of how my body changed were less and less dramatic. My body, my energy, and my overall performance over time hung in a state that I was mostly satisfied with.
I stopped having episodes of “falling off” completely. I also stopped having periods where I was suddenly in “the best shape of my life.”
The changes were also less and less dramatic to those around me. Only I could perceive the internal changes that were happening.
EASY DIETS MATTER
I noticed more and more how easy or difficult each diet felt to maintain. We think we’re robots that just need “willpower” to succeed in the dieting realm. But the truth is, our biology is powerful. It wants to keep us alive, thriving, and fed. And it will send a lot of strong signals to get its way.
I notice how each diet feels on my body. Things like subtle changes to my digestion, mental focus, and overall energy in the gym. I pay attention to how easy or difficult diets are to sustain, while also living a “normal” life of eating with friends and family, having small kids, and being busy.
The mystery of how to make my nutrition work to keep the body I have come to love and rely on is gone. Now it’s just a fun game of fine tuning.
So here are my 5 biggest takeaways from trying so many ways to eat.
I hope they take away the mystery of why one thing works and another doesn’t. Or why it works for awhile, then stops.
Understanding these will give you more freedom to eat in a way that feels good for you – and know what to do if and when it no longer serves your needs.
1. Choose the nutritional path that gets you most excited.
- When you are excited you can raise your willpower, focus, and adherence
- How well you stick to the plan has the biggest impact on your success
- When I was super excited about my first-ever meal plan I had great results. Then when it got boring and the food was bland to my taste buds, I struggled and ultimately fell off.
2. All diets work when YOU are consistent.
- Build a stack of successes that stand as undeniable proof that YOU are the most important factor in all of this.
- When you remain consistent each diet has the ability to produce results.
- CAVEAT – be sure you understand what it was about your dietary approach that led to success (hint – SEE NUMBER 3)
3. Recognize the common thread among all diets.
- Calories are KING and Quality is QUEEN.
- The mechanism of each diet that helps you control your calories is generally what makes it special and effective. There are 3 ways diets do this:
- Calorie Restriction – directly reducing your calories through specific prescribed amounts and intentionally tracking. (Ex. Follow macros, Weight Watchers point system)
- Food Category Restriction – removal of entire categories of food like CARBS or FATS or PROCESSED foods. In doing so you cut out calories indirectly. (Ex. Paleo – no dairy or grains)
- Time Restriction – Restrict the amount of time you have to eat in a day. This limits how many calories you can get in a given day. (ex. No snacks after 5pm, Intermittent Faster, No breakfast until 11am)
- When you go GLUTEN FREE and lose weight, or when you go LOW CARB, and see a change in your body, be careful to attribute the success to the right thing. It was the reduction in calories and how it supported you in sustaining that. Gluten and carbs were not likely the magical ingredient that made you correct some undiagnosed underlying imbalance.
4. Diets are like exercises - Exercise is a physical activity undertaken for immediate outcomes.
- Diets, just like exercise, are not bad. But they are more focused on immediate outcomes and unfortunately get us too focused on the specific actions being taken today rather than the global trends and habits that we can form and build upon.
- Use diets, or types of exercise, to help you uncover what you enjoy best.
- Then take those specific elements and evolve your nutrition further (see #5)
5. Nutrition is like training - Training maps a well-planned route toward a future objective.
- Build nutrition habits into your life that bulletproof your approach for the long-term.
- Diets can help you identify what these habits are if you pay attention.
- Go for a path in both designed to deliver specific results.
My hope is that you try enough diets with passion, enthusiasm, and dedication to ultimately prove to yourself that they all work. The reason they work is that they help you satisfy both the KING and QUEEN of nutrition, QUANTITY, and quality. Ultimately, the success you have on multiple different diets should be the undeniable proof that you need to cement the belief that the diet itself isn’t the biggest variable, but rather that YOU are the common variable that determines success and failure.
Therefore, stop putting all your focus on the DIET and instead turn your effort towards learning NUTRITION. When you raise your NUTRITIONAL IQ you will have the tools to succeed forever. That means a better relationship with food, your body, and your health.
Training & Nutrition Go Hand in Hand
It’s true that nutrition has a huge impact on your body composition. But the shape of our muscles defines your overall look, too. Building more muscle also boosts metabolism, and can dramatically improve your quality of life.
Just like a great nutrition approach, a great training plan has an objective – and a clear way to get you there.
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