How I Structure My (Flexible Eating) Diet
Let me start by saying I loathe the word, “diet”. It needs a major rebranding. Its’ connotation is undoubtedly negative and anxiety-ridden. Most people associate the word “diet” with restriction and unhappiness. Not me. I’ve come to terms with the word “diet” to mean what it actually means: way of living. I'm excited to tell you how I came to adopt and structure my flexible eating diet.
My diet is just the way I eat. It’s not restrictive, it’s carefully crafted. It doesn’t leave me unhappy, I eat my favorite cereal EVERY night. I’m pushing 30 this year and I’m in the best shape of my life. Not to mention, I look good enough with my shirt off, says my wife.
My quest began in May of 2010, when I graduated from college. I topped out at 175 lbs and my face looked like I was storing acorns for winter. I attended Penn State University. The culture there is largely based on sports, drinking, and excessive carbohydrate intake. A true college experience. Needless to say, I wasn’t ecstatic about the way I looked that summer so I decided to make a change.
I picked up a book called The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. I devoured the chapters on losing weight and applied the lessons learned immediately. I ended up 35 lbs in 6 months. If you’re obese and have trouble sticking to a restrictive diet, I cannot recommend this book enough. How’s that for a ringing endorsement? Tim’s book helped so many people turn their life around.
In the summer of 2011, I started doing CrossFit. I was great at body weight movements like pull ups, ring dips, and box jumps. But I struggled with major lifts like the clean, jerk, and snatch. I was skinny fat: 140 lbs soaking wet with little to no muscle tone. It was around this time that a good friend pulled me aside because I looked emaciated. Something had to change.
So I picked up the book Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordaine. CrossFit and Paleo go together like peanut butter and jelly... Except you can’t have peanut butter and jelly! I drank the Kool-Aid hard. My favorite resource at the time was Paleo Nick’s YouTube Channel. He had the best meal prep recipes. My favorites were the Deep Dish Breakfast Pizza & the Pastel De Papa! Dia and I used to make breakfast and lunch for the entire week on Sundays. We were living at my parents’ place and my mom would get so mad about us taking up both sides of the fridge/freezer.
After our wedding in October of 2015, I loosened the reins and let nutrition take a back seat to convenience. We were working 12 hour days, including weekends. Dia at her office job and me at my Frozen Yogurt business. There was a lot pizza and sandwiches in those days. We did our best to balance it out with rotisserie chickens, fruits, and veggies. But it caught up to us.
It wasn’t long before I found myself around 165 lbs again. This time, the weight gain was different. Because of my exercise routine, It was a healthier mix of muscle and fat. Whereas before, in 2010, I was a 175 lb bowl full of pure jell-o. Needless to say, I wanted to lose some weight again. But this time, I wanted it to be slow and methodical. I couldn’t risk losing any strength. Ideally, I wouldn’t lose any muscle either. I want to float between 150 and 155 lbs. I feel like that’s where I look and feel my best.
How I Structure My Diet:
My most trusted resources today are (in no particular order):
All of these resources subscribe to the same idea: Adherence, Caloric Intake, and Macro-Nutrient Balance are 80% of the battle. Micro-nutrients, meal timing, and supplements are minutiae and should be treated as such.
The best “diet” you can do is the one you’ll stick to. The reason I succeeded on The 4 Hour Body Diet is because I LOVED cheat day. I loved the concept of gorging myself every Saturday to a point of feeling sick. The guilt alone carried me through Thursday or Friday of the following week. I only had to enforce will power for one or two days a week.
I adhered to the Paleo Diet for Athletes because I was chugging the CrossFit Kool-Aid. I loved telling people I was “Keepin’ it Paleo”. Sounds dorky, but it worked! Finding what works for you and sticking with it is key!
If you’re restricting yourself from eating your favorite foods, how long will you last? Today, I eat cereal for dessert every single night. Guilt-Free. I’m consistently losing ¾ of a lb per week. Find what works for you and stick to it!
There are a lot of ways to figure out what your caloric intake should be. I find there’s two good enough ways: one’s simple, one’s hard.
Here’s the hard way (it involves some math):
- Step 1: Find BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) - AKA - Coma Calories. This is the amount of calories you’d need to eat if you did nothing but rest.
- Women BMR= 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
- Men BMR= 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
- Step 2: Multiply your BMR by an Activity Rate (Intense Gym Sessions)
- 1-3 days a week= BMR x 1.2.
- 3-5 days a week=BMR x 1.375.
- 6-7 days a week=BMR x 1.55.
- 2 times a day for 6-7 days a week=BMR x 1.725
Here’s what my example looks like:
66 + (6.23 x 160) + (12.7 x 68) - (6.8 x 29) =
66 + 996.8 + 863.6 - 197.2 = 1729.2 calories = BMR or Coma Calories
1,729.2 calories x 1.375 Activity Rate = 2,377.65 Maintenance Calories
If you want to lose (or gain) weight at a rate of 1 lb per week, you can simply subtract (or add) 500 calories to your daily maintenance calories.
So for me, that’s 2,377.65 - 500 = 1,877.
Here’s the easier way to calculate your caloric intake:
Weight in lbs x 10 x Activity Factor
160 x 10 x 1.375 =
1,600 x 1.375 =
2,200 Maintenance Calories.
2,200 - 500 = 1,700 Calories to lose 1 lb per week
The difference in calories between the two methods of calculating is negligible. 2,377 - 2200 = 177 calories. It would take 3 weeks to see a difference of 1 lb either way (3,500 / 177 = 20)
The point here is to pick one and go with it. You’ll have to make adjustments regardless so don’t get bogged down in the details. I suggest keeping it simple and going with option 2.
-Protein: 4 Calories per Gram. Most important dietary macronutrient. Muscle is made of protein. Protein builds new muscle and maintains current tissue. Most satiating macro-nutrient.
Optimum Daily Intake for Protein: 1.0 g per lb of bodyweight
*If you are a short lean girl, take your height in cm and if that number is higher than your body weight in lbs, use that as your grams of protein. For example, Dia is ~115 lbs and 160cm tall, so we use 160 grams of protein for her daily intake. Which is the same as mine, because I weigh 160 lbs.
-Carbohydrates: 4 Calories per Gram. Like fuel for your car. Secretes insulin which is vital for muscle growth. Carbs replenish glycogen stores. Glycogen storage provides you the energy needed to perform a hard workout. Too much will make you fat. Too little will make you lethargic.
-Fat: 9 Calories per Gram. Hormone regulator. An increase in fat metabolism during prolonged exercise has a glycogen sparing effect. This can improve endurance capacity.
Optimal Daily Intake for Carbs & Fats (varies based on strategy)
There are two ways you can do this, one’s hard, one’s easy.
Here’s the hard way.
- Change your carb/fat intake based on whether you workout that day.
- If you workout that day, eat 1g of carb / lb of body weight. Let Fat fill the rest of your calories.
- If you don’t workout that day, eat .5g of carb / lb of body weight. Let Fat fill the rest of your calories.
Here’s the easy way. (Doesn't depend on working out or not)
- If you’re trying to lose weight, make your fat intake 15% of your total calories.
- If 15% happens to be less than .25g per lb of body weight, go with .25g per pound of bodyweight.
- Let Carbs fill the rest of your calories.
- If you’re trying to gain weight, make your fat intake 30% of your total calories.
- If 30% happens to be less than .25g per lb of body weight, go with .25g per pound of bodyweight.
- Carbs fill the rest of your calories.
Minimum Fat Intake: 0.25 grams per lb of body weight
Minimum Carb Intake: 0.5 grams per lb of body weight
So here’s what we know already:
I’m 160 lbs and I need 1,750 calories per day to lose ~1 lb per week. I’m using the easier way to calculate my macros.
Here’s how my macros breakdown:
Protein: 160 grams x 4 calories / gram =640 calories
Fat: 40 grams x 9 calories / gram = 360 calories*
Carbs: 187.5 grams x 4 calories / gram = 750 calories
I use 40g for Fat because 160 lb x .25 g/lb = 40g (>) 1750 Cal * 15% / 9 g/F. Cal = 29g of Fat.
What Gets Measured, Gets Improved:
I need to say this approach will only work if you track everything you eat and drink. I use the MyFitnessPal app. If your food has a UPC code, chances are it’s already in MyFitnessPal. If you go to a chain restaurant, chances are their information is in the app. Chipotle, Starbucks, & DD and many more are all in there.
Yes, there will be times you go out to eat at “Lilly’s Mexican Cantina” and you won’t exactly know what all the ingredients are or in what specific quantity. But you have to do the absolute best you can. Using this app actually helps me eat at home more because I’m so particular about tracking. And when I do go out, I order really simple food.
At the end of the day, you’re not looking to make this an exact science. You should be aiming to get within 10% of all your numbers. 10% of calories, 10% of protein intake, 10% of carbohydrate intake, and 10% of fat intake.
A Typical Day For Me:
I build my daily diet into 3 categories:
- What I need to eat
- What I want to eat
- Whatever’s left over.
I pre-populate my needs into MyFitnessPal either the night before or in the morning. This dramatically decreases my chances of going off the rails.
Here’s how that shakes out:
On days I workout, I drink two protein shakes. 1 Scoop of Whey protein as soon as I wake up with water and 1 Scoop of Casein protein just before bed with water. I also drink a 12oz Gatorade immediately after my workout. On non workout days, I skip the Whey and Gatorade.
My breakfast is always the same: 3 whole eggs + 2 egg whites cooked in ½ Tablespoon of Kerrygold Unsalted butter. One whole grapefruit + one whole bell pepper is my carbohydrate.
My dinner is always the same: 6oz salmon or chicken cooked in ½ tablespoon of Kerrygold Unsalted butter. One whole bell pepper and / or handful of romaine.
My dessert is always the same: 2 servings of any cereal with 8 oz of unsweetened original almond milk.
Lunch is the only thing that varies. I have roughly 350 calories remaining.
My go to lunch is a can of tuna with some dressing and a vegetable. I’m just eating to stay awake honestly. If I eat a big lunch, like Chipotle, I’ll end up sacrificing one serving of cereal at night.