Diet DIY - an end to rigid diets.
Basic Diet Construction - A step by step guide.
The best diet is one you can stick to. So what I'm going to do here is give you a step by step guide to produce a diet that suits and works for you. However, it's worth noting that there are people this approach won't work for, such as those already on chronically low-calorie intakes. The reason being that a chronically low-calorie diet will probably need a period of reverse dieting, but that's a topic for advanced dieting techniques (soon to come).
Step 1. Choose your calorie target (because calories do matter)
A simple step but the most important one.
There are a few ways to choose your starting calories and as you'll be adjusting them based on progress, the starting point isn't too important, so don't stress about it. There are many calorie calculators out there so you could use one of these, you could base it on your current intake (my favoured option) or you can make an educated guess and choose a number you think is appropriate.
The calorie calculators are easy enough, pop your info in and they'll give you a number to work from.
Basing your calorie target on current intake means you need to know, roughly, how many calories you're consuming, how your body is reacting and what you want it to do. For example, if you're eating 2500 calories a day and your weight is staying the same, a simple increase of 250-500 calories will see you gain weight and a decrease of the same will see you lose weight. If you're current calorie intake is increasing your weight and you wish to lose weight, start with a 500 calorie drop (unless this results in lower than 1500-1800 calories, where a period of reverse dieting maybe necessary) and so on.
Alternatively, pick a number you think is appropriate and monitor your progress over the coming weeks, if you gain/lose too much or too little weight, adjust accordingly.
For example's sake, we are going to use 2000 calories through this.
Step 2. Calorie composition ( how much protein, carbs and fats).
We are going to break the total amount of calories down into the individual macronutrients that make them up (protein carbohydrates and fat). What we need to know about the macronutrients are that protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram while fat contains 9 calories per gram (remember these numbers, we'll be using them later) and that only 2 of them are essential to our survival, protein and fat.
As protein and fat are the essential macronutrients, we are going to deal with these in absolutes, not percentages. The problem with basing quantities on a percentage is that as calories go closer to extremes (high or low), the risk of getting too much or, more importantly, not enough of these increases.
For simplicity sake, I like to recommend consuming 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight (target bodyweight if over 20% body fat and male, 30% body fat and female). If you weigh 150lbs, look to consume 150 grams of protein each day.
As for fat, I would recommend aiming for 0.5g of fat per lb of bodyweight (target bodyweight if over 20% body fat and male, 30% body fat and female). The same 150lb individual would consume 75g of fat.
This leaves us with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates will simply make up the remaining calories of the diet. Looking at our existing 150lb individual who is consuming 150g protein and 75g fat, we use some arithmetic and see that 150g protein is equal to 600 calories (150 x 4, 4 being the calories per g of protein) and 75g of fat is equal to 675 calories (75 x 9, 9 being the calories per g of fat). 600 + 675 = 1275 calories. Using the calorie total you chose in step one, we'll use 2000 as an example, we deduct our total of protein and fat from it. 2000 - 1275 = 725. 725 is the total amount of calories we have to allocate to carbohydrates and carbohydrates, as mentioned earlier, contain 4 calories per gram. 725 / 4 = 181. Our total carbohydrate intake on this 2000 calorie diet is 181g. As calories increase/decrease, your carbohydrates will do the same as these are the great variable we have.
Total Calories = Protein calories+fat calories+carb calories.
Total Protein intake = 1g per lb of body weight
Total Fat intake = 0.5g per lb of body weight
Total Carb intake = (Total calories - protein calories - fat calories)/4
At the end of step 2, our 150lb individual is consuming 2000 calories, broken down into 150g protein, 75g fat and 181g of carbs.
Step 3. Food Choices.
This is where the flexibility and sustainability of this diet strategy comes into its own. You pick the foods that you want to eat and fit them into the plan we've just made. One method is to eat foods as you see fit and track their calorie and macronutrient composition through the day, deducting them from your total. So each time you have a meal, you need an idea of how many grams of protein, carbs and fats are in there and you minus these from your totals. There are very good apps to help with this, a very popular one is myfitnesspal.
The second option is you can plan in advance, working out the composition of your foods before hand and structuring your meal plan around them. Choose how many meals you wish to eat through the day, whatever that may be (if you want to eat 3 times or 5 times, do so, this is your diet) and split your portions accordingly. So if our 150lb individual has 3 meals and our totals are 150g protein, 75g fat and 181 g carbs, we divide these by 3 leaving us with 50g protein, 25g fat and 60g of carbs per meal. Pick your foods to match these numbers.
We'll look at each of these separately as 3a and 3b.
3a, track as you go. This can be tricky without the use of a calorie tracker that you can enter your foods directly into, fortunately some good ones exist in app form. Without this option, even a rough idea of the composition of food is enough to loosely stick to your target. I would recommend weighing the regular foods you eat at least once to get a good visual idea of what a portion size really is. The more accurate you are, the easier it is to monitor progress, but if you're not training for a specific goal or date and are just looking to live a healthier lifestyle, then don't worry about using some guess-work.
3b, planning ahead. The benefit of planning ahead is that it gives you time to look up the macronutrients in the foods you eat and prepare them accordingly, making it easier to monitor progress. Again, weighing your food at least once will give you a good visual reference for portion size.
Step 4. General tips.
Tip 1. Prioritise whole, nutritious foods. By this, I mean make sure you are getting at least your 5 a day fruits and veggies in and you are eating quality sources of protein (lean cuts of meat, fish eggs etc). Once these wholesome foods are in the diet, if you still have some calories left over then by all means, have a little treat. Aim to keep a minimum of 80-90% of your foods from unrefined sources. Remember, if you do want to eat some ice cream, fit it into your plan and avoid feeling any guilt over 'cheating on your diet'.
Tip 2. When starting this diet plan, if you are coming from a place where you are carrying significant excess body fat, I would initially look to have ALL foods from unrefined sources. The more overweight an individual, the greater the chance that they do not have normal function over various hormones. By keeping your foods 'clean' for 2-3 weeks, it gives your body a better chance of regaining control and will significantly improve your long-term progress. As your body becomes more efficient at dealing with food, then you can slowly start to reintroduce some treat foods, remembering to stick to tip one.
Tip 3. These are only guidelines, all recommendations can and SHOULD be tailored to you. I recommend 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight partly because it's easy to work out. If you think you will do better with more or less then try it, adjust the diet accordingly and learn about how your body responds. If our 150lb individual wants to try less protein then they could use 0.8g per lb, (0.8 x 150lb bodyweight = 120g protein). Use 120 instead of the 150 we used earlier and see how it goes (this will in turn free up calories for increased carbohydrates). The same goes for fat, although I would never recommend going below 0.4g per lb of bodyweight.
Tip 4. Only be as strict as you need to be. If you're not dieting for a bodybuilding show, wedding or holiday then don't be obsessive. It's called flexible dieting for a reason.
Parts of this diet may look a bit complicated but once they're out of the way it really is the most realistic way of sticking to a plan long term. No foods are taboo, so enjoy them sensibly.