Recently I’ve had a lot of people asking about how they can diet without having to “diet”. This is, after all, the holy grail of dieting - if you don’t feel like you’re on a diet, but you’re achieving your fitness goals, then you’re getting the best of both worlds.
But the holy grail is a hard thing to find.
The whole point of the holy grail is that it gave Arthurian knights a reason to go adventuring. The grail itself promised all sorts of magical benefits, including immortality and happiness. That means that such a thing has to be rare. If everyone has a holy grail, it wouldn't mean much, as in the classic Monty Python joke.
So: grails have to be hard to find. If they aren’t, they aren’t valuable. The whole point of these stories is that if you put in a lot of hard work (and have a bit of divine blessing) then you can have great rewards.
Maybe not 100% applicable to today, right? After all, magic isn’t real and neither is immortality. But the point you should take away is that while the idea of owning a magical cup of infinite life is cool, it’s never as simple as that. There's always a catch, and always work involved.
Likewise, dieting is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to master. Knowing how to setup a good diet, how to follow it, what foods to eat, what foods not to, and how to change our diets to achieve fitness goals - these are all complicated things that take time.
Diet isn’t about being perfect from step one. It’s about practicing the right skills and improving over time.
In the past I’ve written about how there’s tons of dietary approaches, but they always boil down to the same thing. Different approaches may use different methods to ensure that you stick to them and achieve the results you’re looking for, but there’s a variety of healthy end diets and they all generally look similar.
So how do you “diet without dieting?” How do you diet without having to count calories or worry too much about what you’re eating? How do you diet without having to deal with hunger if you’re trying to lose weight?
The reality is that it’s very doable. You see fitness celebrities and dietitians out there selling awful diet plans that no one actually follows, at least not for very long, and you get the impression that diet has to involve suffering. You have to hate it, and by extension, yourself. But it’s anything but: diet can be easy, diet can be simple, just not entirely without effort.
I’ll be honest: I don’t “diet”. I haven’t really had to worry too much about my diet in a long time. That makes it seem easy, but just like with the holy grail, there’s a catch: it took me years of practice to get to this point. It’s not like I woke up like this overnight. I tried a lot of different diets, did a lot of research, and ultimately settled on processes that worked for me.
There’s no perfect solution. This process won’t be the same for everyone. You’ll need to find your own path to this point. There’s no easy outs and no shortcuts. It does take time.
One of the characteristic qualities of the “non-diet diet” is that you focus on the right things. When it comes to diet, some actions can have a pretty big benefit for a pretty small amount of effort. Others can require a lot of effort but not contribute much if at all: worrying about the exact chemical makeup of your spinach, for example.
With that being said, here are some juicy knowledge bits you can use to find your own holy grail. Here's what matters.
I may sound like a broken record if I say exercise is important, but it really is.
While diet alone is superior to exercise alone when it comes to managing weight and health, you get much better results if you take a complete approach that goes for both. Why is this?
Think of exercise like a kick to the system. It keeps things in line and helps keep everything stable.
In general, a higher level of exercise means a higher metabolism - more muscle, more activity. Having a higher metabolism means that you have a larger margin for error. You burn more calories, so there’s more room for things like the occasional cookie or donut. A higher metabolism also typically means that your weight remains more stable. It’s harder to gain unwanted weight simply because you have to eat even more to overcome your heightened metabolism.
Consistent, high quality exercise keeps your metabolism high. That’s a huge benefit, and it helps boost the results of your dietary efforts.
When it comes to dieting, a huge problem a lot of people have is the feeling of hunger. If you feel super hungry when trying to cut calories, this is a huge problem because you’re grumpy and cranky all the time. Some amount of hunger is necessary, but you can still do as much as possible to alleviate that.
You can do so by focusing on highly satiating foods - foods which are very filling, and make you feel full easily. Here's a link to a satiety index you can use when deciding what foods to focus on.
Surprise: the common white potato (often demonized as a bad food) is actually one of the most highly satiating foods in existence, making it an awesome food, actually - it's just that we tend to eat our potatoes fried, covered in salt and fatty oils, or coated in cream and butter, all of which contain unnecessary calories.
Home cooked proteins and veggies are generally the most filling types of foods in existence relative to their caloric content, and home cooked foods are more satiating than processed ones. That means that if you focus on these as the staples of your diet, you’ll feel full quicker and likely eat fewer calories overall. On the other hand, eating a lot of low satiety foods - candy bars, white bread, and so on - will likely lead to weight gain.
Eating veggies can suck. They don’t always taste great. I don’t recommend trying to eat a ton of veggies just for the heck of it. Instead, pick just a few veggies that you like well enough to eat consistently. For me, it’s frozen broccoli, frozen mixed veggies, fresh carrots, and fresh spinach - and I try to avoid everything else.
Protein is something most people don’t normally consume enough of. In addition to being so filling, protein is also a powerful muscle builder (up to a certain point) - this helps keep metabolism high as well. Home cooked proteins tend not to be bundled with other things (as in your typical burger, for example) so you can avoid adding unnecessary carbs or fats.
When in doubt, eat a salad! Toss in a protein source plus some other toppings to taste.
When it comes to nutrition, everyone thinks it’s about nebulous concepts like “nutrients” and “superfoods”. The reality is that the important concepts are right in front of our eyes: the macros.
Macros, or macronutrients, are the fats, carbs, and proteins in our foods. They’re the most important part of how our diet affects us, and most people ignore them almost completely - at the same time, they’re terribly easy to figure out. You just have to look at a food label, where they’re required to disclose the macronutrient breakdown of your foods.
Fat has 9 calories per gram, and protein and carbohydrates have 4. From this, you can calculate how many calories are contained in a particular food. Now you don’t have to calculate these numbers out exactly or dig deeply into the math, but it’s important to understand that you want about equal contributions in your overall calories from all three. In terms of how many calories you need, you can use a calorie calculator, but keep in mind that you need to understand what those numbers mean.
About ⅓ of your calories should come from fat, about ⅓ from carbs, and about ⅓ from proteins. This means that fats should be consumed in smaller amounts (since they have a higher number of calories per gram).
In addition to these three macronutrients, there’s one more thing to focus on: fiber. This typically comes in the form of vegetables and fruits, but not from their juices - so only the real thing (or a smoothie still containing the fiber) will do. Fiber is important for digestive health and doesn’t contribute many calories (your body can’t fully process it) so it’s a great way to stay full without needing to eat a lot of calories.
When setting up a plate, this means that you want about equal size portions of proteins, veggies (fibers) and carbs. Fats are commonly found in protein sources and in cooking oil used when prepping the meat, veggies, or carbs, but are also found in nuts, beans, dressings, avocado, and related products. Keep fats usage small since fats are calorie dense. Err on the side of caution and use as little dressing or oil as possible.
Of course, all of this talk about macros is pointless if you’re not reading food labels. READ FOOD LABELS.
Food labels aren’t perfect. They're not always 100% correct, whether online or on food packaging. But the simpler your food is, the easier it is to have a degree of accuracy. A carrot will always have roughly the same nutrient profile as another carrot, for example. Food info is also available easily online, and a quick wikipedia or google search will usually find the nutrient information for common foods.
A quick search for carrots, for example, reveals that carrots are high in carbs and fibers (typical for a vegetable) and low in fats and proteins. Now you know that this food is primarily a fiber/carb source, and you can plan accordingly when putting together a plate of food that's roughly equal parts protein, carb, and fiber.
With years of practice reading labels, it gets easier. I don’t need to know the exact macro breakdown of a carrot to have been able to tell you ahead of time that it would probably look like the results I’ve found, because I’ve been reading labels for so long. Often times, similar foods have similar nutrient profiles.
Most veggies are low to moderate carb with high fiber and little else. Most meats are high protein with moderate fat, low carb, and no fiber. Many foods are primarily high in one or two macros, though some foods are more confusing.
If you read labels for long enough, you start to get a hang for the general macro breakdown of common food staples even without having to look, and this means that you’ll find it easier to toss together a meal that has a good balance of carbs, fats, proteins, and fibers.
Intuitive Eating Strategies
Lots of intuitive eating strategies exist. These strategies avoid using strict math in favor of simple rules you can use to get the kind of results you want.
A common one is the rule of the fist. You take about a fist sized portion of protein, a fist sized portion of veggies, and a slightly smaller than a fist sized portion of carbs. This only works with typical plated meals though - what about when you don’t have any control over portion sizes?
When you eat at a restaurant, you’re often given huge portion sizes that are probably too much for you - but since it’s in front of you, you end up eating more than you should.
Another strategy is to take a normal portion of food - what you’ve given yourself, or what you’ve received in a restaurant - and set aside ¼ to ½ of it immediately, before eating. If at home, put it back in the pot. If at a restaurant, prepare to ask for a takeaway box. If eating a typical mixed meal (several types of food at once) aim to put back primarily from the carb heavy parts, or take evenly from all macros.
Then, eat that portion later as another meal, or simply don’t eat it. If it’s something like a burger that’s hard to portion off, get a knife and cut off a part or give a part to a friend. Get used to “leaving something on the plate” and you’ll naturally eat less. If you always eyeball what you "think you would eat" and then reduce it just a little bit, you're still eating the same food, but you're cutting back on your calories.
Another easy rule is simply to increase protein or fiber intake. Since protein and fiber are so satiating, eating more of them means taking away other calories elsewhere. If you sit down to dinner and have a 200cal protein shake (not a very big one) before doing so, then wait a little bit before eating, you end up not only eating less, but also you end up usually cutting out more than 200cal elsewhere, simply because you’re less full.
Likewise adding more veggies to your plate, or eating your veggies first, means less will be eaten elsewhere. I love fruit and protein shakes as snacks for this reason - they’re filling, good for you, and likely to displace other calories which are easier to fill up on.
Intuitive eating strategies still rely on understanding labels and macronutrients. But they can work, and work well, even without needing to worry about the math.
Everyone eats a cookie from time to time. Everyone has a bad day and wants to chow down on a few slices of pizza. This is a given.
Shaming this is a terrible idea. It’s not going to solve anything, and it’s just going to inject unnecessary guilt into the equation. So what’s the solution?
Obviously, comfort foods can’t be a huge staple of your overall diet. These foods are the kinds that tend to be high calorie, very delicious, and easy to overeat. These foods can throw you off.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them in moderation. Moderation means you you can enjoy a slice of pizza here and there, but not five. It means that you have no guilt about sinking your teeth into a cookie or donut, but you purposefully choose to turn down that instinct to grab a second one.
Uncoupling the feeling of guilt from the act of enjoying a comfort food is a process that takes time. It took me years. Some people go overboard a little bit sometimes, start bragging about how they can eat so much garbage and get away with it after they’ve been training for a few years. But that’s not what it’s about - it’s about finding the right balance between the rest of your diet and the foods that you instinctively want to eat.
After a while, it does get easier.
Keep it easy
Another huge problem is the problem of simplicity. When you’re making changes for the first time, it’s going to be difficult. But over time, you should look for ways to reduce the difficulty of sticking to your diet.
If you go out to the store, focus on buying only the ingredients you know you need, so that you’re not confronted by salty snacks or sugary sweets when you open the pantry. Find staple recipes that you come back to and repeat. Develop routines, eat similar foods every day or stick to a pretty regular eating schedule. Plan to replace a meal with a fast-prep protein shake if it’s sometime during the day when you won’t have much time to think about your food. Prep a lot of food and once and store it so that you can use it over the next few days, and always have something to eat if you're hungry.
By setting up your dietary environment in this way, you’ve created a “pathway” for yourself to fall into. You’ve made it easier (and therefore more likely) for you to stick to your diet. If you have food on hand, you're more likely to eat that than to go out looking for quick-fix fast food.
These strategies help to reduce the overall complexity of your diet. By doing a little bit of work ahead of time, you can reduce the amount of effort you have to spend down the line. That means that when you come home tired and burnt out from work and with very little time to cook, you can open up the fridge and simply take out a container of ready food, heat it up, and eat.
Ultimately dieting is hard, but you don’t want to make it any harder than it has to be. Developing habits and strategies that are concrete and based around your own lifestyle takes a bit of time, but once you’ve done it, you can put yourself on autopilot and it becomes easier and easier to stick to it. Focus on finding ways to reduce your difficulty or time spent prepping food as much as possible.
Intuitive eating, like stricter dieting, is a skill that takes time to do right. But ultimately, if you learn to rely on these patterns, you can start to see results all the same, and without any of the stress of a stricter diet approach. Over time, you get more used to these habits, and it becomes easier and easier to use them.
Like a strict diet, it’s not a perfect approach. It may not work for everyone. But it can work, and work well, with the right practice. When you want to lose weight, you focus on cutting carbs and fats, or replacing them with more protein and veggies. When you're eating well and staying active, it's fine to indulge yourself with a bit of pizza and a few drinks with friends.
Intuitive eating makes it easy to diet without dieting - removing a lot of the difficult parts of traditional dieting.
At the same time, it’s not a perfect solution and requires practice to master.
Exercise regularly to keep your metabolism high. This has the effect of making your weight more stable, in addition to the numerous other health benefits.
Eat lots of protein and lots of veggies. If in doubt, eat more.
Research macros and a macro-based approach to dieting - this is often called IIFYM or flexible dieting. You don’t need to adhere to a strict macro-based approach (as seen in tools like myfitnesspal) but you want to get an understanding for your overall calorie needs as well as the impact of different macros on your diet.
Read food labels. Over time, you need to do this less and less as you get more experience. This gives you a rough idea of whether a food is classed as a fiber, protein, fat, or carb (or some mixture of the four) and thus how to eat.
A good diet gets about equal parts of its calories from fats, carbs, and proteins. This means a plate of food has about ⅓ from protein, ⅓ from carbs (or a bit less, or a substantial bit less if looking to lose weight), and ⅓ from veggies (fiber). Fat is typically found in meats and added in cooking oils, so you don’t need to add much.
Use intuitive eating strategies to reduce your overall food intake. When in doubt, adding a protein shake or some veggies will usually cause you to eat less food elsewhere.
Allow yourself leeway. You’re not a bad person for eating junk food, just try not to let it take up more than 10% of your overall diet.
Focus on strategies to reduce the amount of effort you have to put in. When choices are made ahead of time, this forces you to stick to them later - and this makes it much easier. Meal prep, buying food, and other forms of advance planning all help, but you’ll need to find options that work well for you.
- Understanding Your Actual Metabolism
- How to Eat Like a Slob
- Programming Your Macros Part 1: General Health and Wellness
- Programming Your Macros Part 2: Gaining Muscle
- Programming Your Macros Part 3: Weight Cutting and Weight Loss
- Weight Management: A Simple and Comprehensive Guide
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
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