How important is your diet really?
What is the most difficult part of getting in shape, or meeting a training goal? For most people, once they get into a training routine they enjoy, the hard part is not actually going to the gym or hitting the streets for a run.
It’s eating properly.
This is because while training might be 3 or 4 hours a week, eating healthily and avoiding snacks is something you have to stick to for at least 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When you put it like that, it seems pretty hard.
A huge emphasis is placed upon diet in the fitness industry, with dieting and nutrition probably more focused on than actual training- there’s a new craze, or diet that comes out every other week, always promising that you’ll be able to ‘eat what you want’ or by reverting back to hunter-gather meal plans you’ll have more energy than ever whilst getting ripped etc.
For example, a popular one right now is the If It Fits my Macros (IIFYM) – the idea is that as long as you hit your ‘macro-nutrient’ target for the day (that is a certain amount of protein, carbs and fats, calculated dependant on your goals) you can essentially eat what you want since your body doesn’t differentiate protein from a chocolate milkshake to a lean chicken breast.
They all have their followers and detractors, who will both swear blind that they are right.
Even outside of the realm of training and fitness there is a societal obsession with diets, dieting, and food in general.
So who is right? How much should I be paying attention to my diet when it comes to training?
In my honest opinion, unless you’re going to compete in a bodybuilding show or a pro athlete, don’t stress too much about your diet.
Obviously I’m not saying that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Nor am I saying that diet doesn’t play its part in getting and keeping training results.
What I’m saying is that if you want to live a fitness lifestyle and get in shape, the number one most important thing is not your diet, training split, your protein intake, or your fasting day, or whether you should do interval training or steady state cardio.
It is enjoying the process.
As we said above, eating takes up a big part of your waking life. Enjoying your eating is therefore a massive part of enjoying your lifestyle. If you can’t enjoy what you eat, you’re not going to stick to your nutrition plan; if you can’t be consistent you can’t make fitness your lifestyle, which is the only sustainable way of getting results.
So far, so good. But what if you have a sweet tooth? Or that crisps and chocolate happen to be your favourite foods?
The easy answer is to just say, tough, you have to exercise some willpower. But we all know that in reality that kind of talk doesn’t work: good intentions are often far from enough to stop people from giving in, and what’s more you’ll probably get miserable from not being able to eat what you want. Result: training doesn’t go anywhere.
What’s the solution?
Don’t obsess over your diet, focus on your training.
It’s by no means a one size-fits-all solution, because everyone is different and everyone has different triggers. But what works for me, and plenty of others I know who lead fitness lifestyles, is that by giving your all in training and really focusing on excelling in that area you get two results:
- You’re training hard and often, so eating junk has less of an impact on your results- your body uses and needs the energy;
- As you continue and see the PR’s and the progression you start to value your training results, meaning you are more prepared to cut back on the bad diet to maximise and improve even more. As a result your progress is even better. It’s a virtuous circle.
When I was at university I didn’t lead the healthiest lifestyle by any means, but in general my diet was a lot better than 95% of my peers. People would ask me whether I could and did cook, expecting the standard student response of ‘yeah baked beans on toast”.
Actually I used to try and cook properly every day and eat mostly healthily: the reason was 100% because I was training hard and didn’t want to sacrifice my results or hinder my progress.
The side bonus to that was by trying to be good for most of the time I had a bit of licence to eat junk on the weekends and do the ‘normal’ student diet of chips and beer.
I still do the same thing, eat well most of the time and train hard, which means if someone wants to get pizza I can enjoy it too.
The point is that by focusing on my training and letting it lead my nutrition, I’ve come to a point where I can eat healthily AND sustainably, with no cravings or feeling restricted, while continuing to get results.
The industry puts an inordinate amount of focus on nutrition and dieting, because this is the best revenue source. At the recent FIBO fitness expo in Cologne I went to I estimate 70% of the emphasis was on selling supplements or nutrition products.
Magazines, articles and ‘gurus’ will also all go on about diet and dieting as a cornerstone of training.
It IS important, no doubt. But it is equally important to remember that:
- Supplements, powders, pills and shakes can never be as good as real food.
- When it comes to building muscle, a lot of it is determined by your hormones and genetics. The whole ‘eat big, get big’ motto is essentially complete bullshit when it comes to training naturally without drugs. Training properly (compound movements and intensity, progressive overload) will be the most important factors in reaching your muscle potential, while just eating a bit more real food for energy and protein for recovery.
- When it comes to losing fat, weight training and cardio are the most important things to getting leaner. Evidently cutting the junk and the fat is important, but building muscle and burning the calories through cardio is what you should be focusing on.
This applies to 90% of trainees who just want to get in shape: if you’re a high level athlete or bodybuilder you obviously have to take it more scientifically and seriously.
The ultimate goal of training is to make yourself feel fit, confident and content, not miserable and restricted.
Going on diets just doesn’t work, because they make you feel bad, or hungry or both. That’s not enjoying life, and it’s not sustainable.
Instead of worrying too much about your diet, worry about your training: give it your all, and once you start seeing the progression you’ll want to keep it going. Choices like eating healthily won’t seem as much of a chore.
As I’ve said before, people truly living the fitness lifestyle are never on a diet.
Training hard = training results.
Training results = feeling good about yourself
Feeling good about yourself = making better diet choices.
Making better diet choices = training results
Training results = …you get the idea.
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