Give Me The Fish (GMTF): While it is true that you just need a “calorie deficit”, it’s the “making it happen”, that’s the difficult part. But, I’m here to tell you that with some patience and reasonable expectations you don’t have to go on a crazy diet or swear off junk food to lose weight. You just have to use this weird concept called “within reason” that if applied “within reason” will get you to where you want to be.
You can lose your extra fluff, keep your muscle, and still enjoy life. Just don’t expect it to be overnight, and don’t try to cheat the system. Below will help guide you on your journey to finding this long lost art of “within reason” and still get you to improve body composition and have healthy weight loss.
Long Story Short: Eat protein with every meal, cut out the majority of processed food and sugar, and remember that eating “unhealthy food” occasionally probably won’t kill you. Also, it will take 6-12 months. Skip to the bottom if you just want the rules outright.
Side Note: This is going to be completely about food and dieting, but I just want to get this out there. Exercise, especially cardio, helps tremendously in your efforts to improve your body composition and have healthy weight loss. It’s just hard to beat the amount of calories burned (even when you count in burning calories during recovery).
That’s not to say you shouldn’t lift as well, especially if you want to gain/maintain muscle. Believe it or not, THEY ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Finally, if you don’t use your muscles, you will lose them, diet will not help you here. But, I digress those articles are elsewhere and even on this site.
Table of Contents
The Three Food Diet Guaranteed to Improve Body Composition…
It’s been well over a decade, and like many of my past mentors and coaches, years later and I can still hear my High School Wrestling Coach interrogating teammates and myself about how much food we ate.
Just one of those things that stick with you over the years.
Funny enough, the advice I got for cutting weight, while it worked, was probably not the most practical advice for anyone that wants sustainable healthy weight loss, but it’s also not wrong.
What was that advice?
“Eat cabbage, rice cakes, and tuna. And, make sure to take a large multi-vitamin.”
For all intents and purposes, it’s not the worst. Using that advice, I would regularly drop 5-10lbs for the season and cut the rest in water weight. If you notice, no calories, protein, carbs, fats, or any other figure was ever actually mentioned.
Sure, you would hear calories occasionally called out, ranging from 1500 to 500 depending on how “fat” someone got. But, usually it was just, “eat cabbage, rice cakes and tuna. And, make sure you take a large multi-vitamin”. No more descriptor needed.
While I’m not gonna lie, I still hate cabbage, the principles behind this are more solid then you think.
Improve Body Composition With Good Food Composition
The thing is, while yes, it’s all about calorie deficit for weight loss that a) doesn’t mean you need to count calories and b) that says nothing about body composition.
What’s great about the three food diet above is you don’t have to think about it, you can eat as much as you want (not that you want to eat that much of any of those), it also ensure a high protein load and just enough carbs and fat to stop you from keeling over. And, no added sweeteners, and only minimally processed food.
The Three Food Diet Improved
Grappling in college (amateur), I needed to drop 28lbs to hit the 140lb weight class (yes, I was still a light weight back then).
Falling back on what I had learned in wrestling, but also knowing I would never eat cabbage again. I had a few changes. It was more like, the two type of food diet (it’s also Keto if you care).
Daily food consisting of ½ to 1 pound of broccoli/celery/spinach and a pound or so of some kind of meat. Ranging from 1000-1400 calories in total.
Now as a disclaimer, looking back at my journal (yes, I was a nerd then too), about 14 lbs was water loss through a combination of stopping creatine, muscle glycogen depletion (very limited carbs), and sweating out 8lbs more or so in the 24 hours leading up to weigh-ins.
The remainder was all lean body mass weight loss.
But, the real questions are, was it improved body composition? Was it healthy weight loss?
Looking back at my trusty journal, it was about 11lbs of body fat (by calipers). I went from 13% to 7% which had me losing about 3lbs of lean body mass which I would assume was primarily muscle (the horror!). All across 4 weeks.
So, honestly, I would argue no on all accounts. And, to be honest, it’s kind of the experience I’ve had with all crash diets. But, it does work.
Now I can hear half of you saying, “So, you’re telling me I just have to eat food tasting like dirt to lose weight?”
To that, actually, no.
The Lazy Man’s Diet to Improved Body Composition
Fast forward to three years ago. I had finished an Ironman 12 weeks prior and had just started gaining all of my muscle back that I had lost during the course of my training. I looked in the mirror and… “where the $%%$ is my 6 pack?” (I know boohoo, but I work hard for this so…yeah).
Over the next couple months I proceeded to gain another pound or so of muscle and my six pack came back to me.
Did I do it by Keto?
Nope, carbs all the way baby…. I honestly just skipped breakfast and replaced it with my famous protein/fat shake (you probably don’t want to know what is actually in it).
While I did count calories, it was only because I’m a nerd. Then I added 15-30 minutes of cardio at the end of my weightlifting sessions.
Literally, that’s all I did.
My wife and I still occasionally went out for ice cream (it’s how I buy her off when I’m in trouble). We still occasionally went out to eat, and I wasn’t weird about it. At least not more than usual.
What the two diets above and the three food diet had in common was a caloric deficit, high protein, and lots of filler vegetables.
The moral of the story is, you can lose weight, still eat food, and not become a weak human being. The real problem for people is not that they don’t count the calories of the food they eat, it often actually comes down to the composition of the food they eat.
…ok, and sometimes portion control depending on if you’re eating vegetables or skittles.
Why does the composition of food matter?
Three main reasons.
Protein, micronutrients, and the advent of modern day artificially created calorie packed mega foods (a.k.a processed food with high sugar and fat content).
Why Protein Matters: Explanation beyond the Gym Bros
To start with protein, the body’s structure is almost entirely built of protein, it’s why animal products are such great sources of it, because they are built like us (in general). Even our bones are largely made of protein. Ever heard of protein pact bone broth, or collagen?.
Not only that, but your body is constantly breaking down and building up all of the structures in your body. What that means, is that if you don’t eat enough protein, your body will have to get that protein from somewhere, most notably your muscles.
So, essentially your body will steal your muscles to ensure the rest of your body continues to function, and may even steal that protein to maintain and even build structures like adipose tissue (fat).
Your body doesn’t know what crazy stunts you are up to, so it has to weigh the cost-benefit of muscle versus starvation. And, since it’s doing this like a blindfolded archer, it generally picks “LET’S NOT STARVE”.
Then proceeds to remove stuff that takes energy that is rarely used (muscle) to build something that will always be used, energy storage, a.k.a fat.
Why Vegetables Are Not Just Something Your Mom Told You To Eat
Micronutrients are the next big issue. Not to insult your intelligence, but in case you don’t know, this is just a fancy word for saying vitamins and minerals (also zoonutrients, mycontrients, and phytonutrients, look these up).
You could just take a multi-vitamin but time and time again, they don’t prove as effective as the real deal. Also, you don’t get the fancy stuff in the parenthesis above.
Vitamins and minerals (and bacteria) make everything else happen in your body that protein, fat, and carbohydrates don’t cover down on. Most notably enzymes for chemical reactions. Things like saliva to breakdown food, hormone creation to tell your body to build muscles or store energy, nerve stimulation to make muscles move or to have your senses work, and reactions that help your gut pull energy out of digesting food.
Without getting enough vitamins and minerals, just like with a lack of protein, your body will use what it has available for important functions. While things that are deemed less important will be drained away, all the way until you get really sick, or age faster, or get fatigued real easy.
On top of that, once again, your muscle is normally one of the first things to be cannibalized. Fat, does not, it’s actually kept for a while because it a) doesn’t cost the body much to keep it, b) it is energy storage, c) it happens do also store the Vitamins and Minerals that you need.
So, without these, say goodbye to healthy weight loss and goodbye to that improved body composition you are looking for.
…well, I guess skinny fat is a look…
Why Modern Food Sucks… Unless You Are Talking About Taste
Lastly, we got this issue with modern food.
It’s not that I have anything against eating it, it’s just it is hard to be able to go out and eat whatever you want when a candy bar (cliff bars are the same thing) has a similar amount of energy as 4 apples, 2 lbs of spinach, or a quarter pound of chicken.
The same goes for an energy drink, or a coke.
They just have such a large amount of energy packed into such a small space, it’s just hard to compete.
Now we start getting to why almost every diet (Three Food Diet, Paleo, Atkins, Keto, ect.) works.
It’s just hard to over eat if you have to literally over eat by pounds of food. A pound of most vegetables… a pound… is less then 350 calories and sometimes much less. A fatty pound of meat (yes, a pound) is generally under 1,200 calories.
While it’s not impossible to over eat this way, as shown by some people still not losing weight, it’s a lot harder.
Does that mean we are stuck eating food that we don’t even want to over eat in the first place?
How to Lose Weight Without Going “Hard In the Paint” : The Art of “Within Reason”
Diets work for people because, regardless of how independent people like to say they are, people like hard and fast rules.
They like to hear “this will fix all your problems”. People also don’t like to believe that they are currently “just doing it wrong”.
Here is the thing, you don’t really need rules, but below are 10 Rules…ish to Improve Body Composition with Healthy Weight Loss.
In otherwise, some simple guidelines, that can help you lose weight, eat the foods you want “within reason”, not have to count calories or fist sizes, or do anything crazy, and still have some semblance of manhood left (or womanhood) a.k.a. still having muscle.
So, with that in mind, there are some basic principles that if you follow, you can not only eat the foods you like, but also drop a few pants sizes.
*Side note: If you’re a vegetarian, while I don’t understand you, I can sympathize. Your life needs a little more involvement than the below. Counting protein will probably be a thing for you. Try for at least 30g in every meal, hitting at least 1.4g per kg of body weight per day is the goal. You also are probably more likely to eat more processed foods and unfortunately, those have lots of added cooking fat and sweeteners, just things to keep in mind. Also, just because all vegetarians need to know this, you can only get B12 from animal products and your body can’t produce it. So, I would highly recommend supplementing it.
10 Rules..ish to Improve Body Composition with Healthy Weight Loss
- Eat only ONE processed food item a day.
- Why one? Because we are human, we have cravings, and I get it. If you have none great, but if you need bread or pasta in your life, go ahead.
- Just keep the size reasonable, not the whole loaf, but a slice or two of wonder bread or that bagel will be fine.
- Side note to this, sometimes we are out and about and don’t really have many options in this. If you can pick up cheese sticks, or salami, fruit, or vegetables from a grocery store you should, but if you can’t, go for a small piece or reasonable size of whatever you’re getting. You don’t need to be weird about it. But, if you go to fast food (the worst choice) get just the sandwich, skip the fries and the drink.
- Limit yourself to One added sugar item a day
- If this is in processed food, it also counts as that (see the last rule).
- Maybe this is your morning Frappuccino or Gatorade, or you really love fruit loops, I don’t care, but if you want it, take it.
- Of course, it’s better not to do this, but if you need it, have it.
- This doesn’t mean get an extra-large mocha latte. Grab your small and move on.
- I personally have a rule about never eating junk food at work functions (ex. Donuts), but if you do, and it’s not very often and you happened to already have your Frappuccino, go ahead and eat that quarter of a donut or whatever (the goal is to limit the damage), if it’s one day a month, it won’t kill you.
- Have a serving of protein with every meal.
- Normally this is some kind of animal product (doesn’t have to be, quinoa, tofu, TVP, soy protein, etc.), but the point is that the item has more protein than any other substance.
- You don’t need to look at labels, you know protein. Cheese is protein (though you want a fair amount of cheese), fish is protein, meat is protein, and eggs are protein.
- This includes snacks, if you want a snack, great, but it has to have protein (vegetable and fruit are an exception.
- Don’t Overload Your Plate
- What does this mean? It means you shouldn’t have an overflowing plate.
- A good idea for this is to think what a typical dinner plate looks like on t.v.
- No seconds
- This is easy, you filled your plate you’re good.
- Eat as many raw vegetables as you want.
- I mean it, go ahead and go to town
- Lots of micronutrients and it helps get rid of some of your cravings
- Also great if you have a habit of eating when bored
- Some Fruits and Nuts are ok
- A fruit or small handful of nuts isn’t the worst thing, but keep them small portions, especially for the nuts.
- Little story: I’ve had two clients consistently eating over 2,000 calories in nuts on the daily, thinking they were minimal calories. Don’t let that be you.
- And no, you don’t need to eat it with a side of steak.
- A fruit or small handful of nuts isn’t the worst thing, but keep them small portions, especially for the nuts.
- Varied food
- Just like what it says, don’t be scared to mix up your meals. Different foods have different micronutrients.
- Don’t Drink Your Calories
- Unless this is your processed sugar food (even then I don’t recommend it) it’s just hard to combat the number of calories in drinks and they don’t fill you up.
- Holidays/Parties/Going Out To eat
- If you only go out once a week, don’t stress about your order, no need to be weird about it.
- This doesn’t mean, get an appetizer, the dinner for two, and the dessert. It does mean, pick the main meal you want and don’t worry about it.
- Ok, if you are Mr/Miss popular and you celebrate more than one of these a month, maybe not. But, for the rest of us not so cool people, go ahead and eat like a normal person. As per the theme…don’t be weird about it.
- Don’t grab seconds.
- Don’t try to beat the system.
- Ok, not really a rule, and I did say 10… but, it needs said and you know exactly what I mean.
- People always want to take things to the limits, but if you notice a lot of these rules are flexible. As it should be, you have a life to live and enjoy. But, if you take all of these rules to the farthest extent possible, you will not improve body composition and healthy weight loss will be a thing of the past.
That’s it, if you keep to these 10 rules, you will do alright. It won’t be fast, but you will get there. Remember that these are all a guideline. The stricter you are the more likely you will get a result you like.
But, you also have to live. So if you eat pasta every day, you don’t need to cut it out, just keep the portions smaller, like the size of your fist. If you want to eat a sandwich every day for lunch, go for it, just make sure you get your protein and the sandwich isn’t a triple stacker with a ¼ cup of French dressing.
The trick is “within reason”.
This helps 90% 0f the people that stick to it. The real point, is just to be mindful of your eating. If all of this was boring and you’re going to forget all of this as you continue your search for the next quick fix for weight loss, just remember, protein with every meal, cut out the majority of processed food and sugar, and not eating “unhealthy food “occasionally or once a day won’t kill you.
What happens if I don’t improve body composition or have healthy weight loss?
Well, first you need to give this some time. We are not drastically cutting calories, so you have to slowly burn off what you do have in fat on you. This will take months if not years depending on how much healthy weight loss you need.
It’s the reason why people like crash diets. The problem is people rebounding after. If you have the will power, doing a crash diet and then switching to this would give you the best results. But, before you dive in, just know that most people fail at doing this.
It’s not a knock on you, it’s just that we all have limited willpower and if you have outside stress in your life, it just won’t happen. Unless you get a coach, doesn’t even need to be me. It’s just someone to take some of that willpower off your plate.
Secondly, as written, this won’t work for everyone.
Usually, because they are trying to “beat the system”, but also because sometimes our bodies are really efficient or our activities are minimal, or for whatever reason, we just don’t burn that many calories.
If this is the case, a few tweaks normally work. The first is limiting your meal/snack counts.
If you eat 6 times a day (3 meals and 3 snacks), start cutting those out or replacing those one at a time with vegetable-only meals. The other is to start looking at cooking oils and condiments.
If you’re basking your green beans in butter, that’s a lot of calories.
If you eat your salad drenched in French dressing, that’s a lot of calories.
If you put lots of ketchup or mayonnaise on your sandwich, that’s a lot of calories.
Doing one of these a day is fine, but if you are hitting all three, you might have found your problem.
If none of the above works, it might be time to get a coach/nutritionist (possibly even me). Not only can they help you build good habits, but they can help pinpoint where the holdup is and keep you accountable.
Certified Nutritionist and Personal Trainer