Everywhere you look these days you’ll find new and conflicting sets of guidelines about how you should be eating to be more fit and healthy. Between government-issued guidelines, tips from your favorite nutrition columnist, or the latest fad diet, you may find yourself encouraged to eliminate fat, carbs, sugar, grains, or some complex combination of the above. While I can't take the time to refute every claim you might come across, I'd like to provide some simple and commonsense guidelines thatI’ve followed to become a professional level bodybuilder and that I have implemented successfully with my personal training clients as well. These seven guidelines are meant to serve as just that, not inflexible laws, but rather a guide to help you make the best choices you can most of the time, allowing you to look great, feel great, and live a long and disease free life:
1) Eat several moderate-portioned meals throughout the day. Within the bodybuilding community, the standard dogma is that you must eat every 2–3 hours, all day, every day. While there may be some benefit to this method for controlling portions and being very consistent with your diet, for the vast majority of individuals it is inconvenient and unnecessary. Your total calorie and nutrient intake at the end of the day is more important than a perfect distribution, so if you have an easier time eating three or four meals during the day than six, that's absolutely fine. One word of caution though, it's still a very good idea to keep these meals evenly portioned so that your nutrient intake is still fairly evenly distributed. Missing meals, like breakfast and lunch for example, will also leave you hungrier and more likely to indulge in unhealthy food later in the day, so be diligent and plan ahead!
2) Eat produce with every meal and snack. If there's one thing nutrition researchers actually can agree on, it's that fruits and vegetables are good for you. In fact, one of the major predictors of how long you'll live and what diseases you'll get is your intake of produce—and there's no upper limit to their benefit! Given this information, it's a very good idea to make sure you're eating a fruit and/or vegetable every single time you eat. Whether it's a quick snack on the go or a sit down meal, the more you get in, the better!
3) Try to get in Beans and Greens every day. Two mandatory staples in my clients' diets as well as my own are beans and greens. These are top nutrition picks in my book for several reasons. First, they’re both high in protein at about 50% of calories coming from protein. Second, they are low in both fat and calories (especially leafy greens), meaning you can eat a lot and fill up without worrying at all about gaining body fat. Third, beans and greens are extremely nutrient dense, packing in tons of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants! Try to get these in every day, starting small with your portions to avoid bloating, and your body will thank you!
4) Eat plenty of whole food carbohydrates throughout the day. Carbohydrates have been especially vilified, and with highly refined sources like flour and sugar, rightfully so. However, unprocessed carbohydrate sources such as fruits, intact whole grains, and root vegetables are phenomenal for your well-being, exercise performance, and long-term health. These foods are much slower digesting and much more nutrient dense that their refined counterparts, providing you efficient energy all day long and stimulating your metabolism for easier weight maintenance, better performance, and faster recovery.
5) Stop eating about two hours before going to sleep. When we sleep, our metabolism slows down and our bodies divert energy to repair and recovery while we rest. If we eat a large meal before sleeping, we load our body with calories when we are more likely to store them as fat, and we give the body a burden of digesting all that food when it should be focusing its efforts on repair and recovery. Do your best to get dinner in at least 2 hours before bedtime and enjoy a leaner physique and a better quality of sleep.
6) Drink two to four liters of fresh water every day. Water is the most vital nutrient, and dehydration will rapidly affect everything from mental and physical performance to metabolic rate to your immune system. The easiest way to ensure your body can operate at maximum efficiency is to provide plenty of plain water every day. This requirement will vary based on your body size and daily caloric intake, but by getting in 2 to 4 liters every day in addition to other beverages you will be just fine.
7) Avoid detrimental calorie sources, such as animal products and processed foods. Since you have a set amount of calories you take in within a typical day, it makes sense to get the most out of that allotment by consuming as many calories as possible from health-promoting foods, and as few as possible from health limiting foods. Animal products like meat, dairy, fish, and poultry are not advisable because they are less nutrient dense than plant foods, and are associated with an increased risk of chronic disease like heart disease and cancer. Processed foods are artificially condensed, which makes overeating all too easy, and they are stripped of nutrients and instead have unhealthy additives such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. By avoiding these foods in favor of whole plant foods, you'll optimize your health, physique, and performance.
I feel that nutrition should be kept as straightforward as possible to minimize confusion and make long-term success easy. Hopefully these guidelines will help you approach your diet from a new perspective and achieve your best physique and the best health possible. Good luck!