It doesn’t have to be this painstaking, though, says Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s outlined 12 easy-to-use tips for making the process easier and more effective—no starving, no B.S.
1. Reframe your mindset
“With any client, I never refer to it as a ‘diet,’ because oftentimes that has a negative connotation or a notion you’re going to be restricting some type of nutrient, whether that’s a macro like carbs, specific food groups, like dairy, or really just overall calorie restriction,” Mazur says.
2. Individualize your approach
Nutrition isn’t a one-size fits all plan of attack. “One of the ways to be successful is learning how to fuel your body for optimal function—to give your body the right nutrients in the right amounts, but not restricting or depriving your body of anything essential,” Mazur explains.
That looks different for everyone depending on your goals, whether that’s for weight gain, weight loss, or overall health, he adds.
3. Stop restricting yourself
“I think people feel they need to restrict something,” Mazur says—which explains all the popular talk over gluten-free or carb-free diets, or why super-strict muscleheads love to talk about completely depriving themselves of the foods they love.
“To be successful in the long run, I don’t think absolute restriction is all that important,” Mazur says. Rather, it’s more important to find balance, moderate, and take the time to fit in those foods you really enjoy. “Take an 80/20 approach,” he suggests: Fuel up for your goals, eat clean, nutrient-rich foods 80 percent of the time, then eat the way you want to 20 percent of the time. Complete restriction will only set you up for failure—and a serious binge.
4. Focus on ‘cans’, rather than ‘can nots’
It’s easy to get bogged down or obsessed by calorie or macronutrient counting. “This works for elite athletes, but it’s not practical for the average guy,” Mazur says. Life is unpredictable, and if you have a day job, you don’t have time to whip out a measuring cup.
“Eat ‘the rainbow,’ as they say, and focus on getting a wide range of nutrients from lots of different foods instead,” he suggests.
5. Listen to your body
Yes, keeping your meals regimented can ensure you don’t overeat—but it also pays to pick up on hunger cues, Mazur says. “Intuitive eating habits and approaches are a good focus: Stop eating when you’re full and don’t just eat when you’re bored,” he explains.
Try to eat slower, too. This will give your brain and stomach ample time to register fullness, so you’re not over-stuffed after each meal.
6. Motivate from within
“The first thing I always talk to with a client—whether it’s an elite athlete, a guy looking to better his body composition, or someone looking to bulk up—is mindset,” Mazur says. Ask yourself: What are my goals? What am I trying to achieve? Everyone has an area they’d like to improve on. But the trigger to change can’t come from a spouse or friend, if you want to be successful. You have to believe you can make a change and know it won’t happen overnight.
“Motivation is what gets you started but habit is what keeps you going,” Mazur explains.
7. Avoid fad diets and trending supps
It’s easy to get confused; the Internet is a wealth of knowledge and conflicting messages. You can go to three different sites and get entirely different takeaways on the same topic. “I always say What does science find?” Mazur says. “It’s tempting to follow a blog, but if you don’t use research, really you’re just guessing,” he adds. That’s not to say science doesn’t conflict. “Look at that research with a critical eye, too,” Mazur recommends—some studies have greater merit than others.
The bottom line: Your nutrition plan has to work for you and your lifestyle. Just because it sounds cool on your Instagram feed doesn’t mean it’ll do you any damn good.
8. Wipe out temptation (for the most part)
“If your diet is mostly high-fat, high-sugar foods that are totally processed, you need to get rid of most of them,” Mazur says. “The clean, healthy, unprocessed foods you should be eating need to be placed at eye level in the pantry or up front in the fridge,” he recommends.
Seriously: Make healthy foods easy to grab. You eat with your eyes first, and convenience is powerful. Place good-for-you-foods so they’re easier to get to and bad-for-you-foods so they’re harder to reach—like on higher shelves and in the back of the fridge or pantry.
9. Be strategic when shopping
This isn’t a novel tip, but dammit if it doesn’t work: Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. “That’s where all the fresh, unprocessed foods, like fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish are,” Mazur says. “The center aisles are always where the processed foods lurk,” he adds. For the most part, chose real food. You want 100% whole-grain items and 100% fruit juices that undergo limited processing. If you want more sugar or salt, you can always add a bit, but the key is keeping the control in your hands.
Another good rule of thumb: “Avoid food with more than five ingredients, if you can,” Mazur says. The longer the ingredient list, the less likely a food is to be nutritious. “Food companies have a lot of play and power with where they strategically place junk foods (right at the check-out aisles, within arm’s reach, at eye level), so don’t be afraid to take your time and look around so you know you’re choosing the right items.”
10. Take the time to meal prep
There are only two kitchen appliances you need for a successful diet, Mazur says: a slow cooker and a blender. They make small and large meals a breeze. “It’s worth a few hours on Sunday to make a list and meal prep,” Mazur adds. Cook meals that can last you all week to save time, money, and calories. “When you plan ahead and spend money at the grocery store, you’re less inclined to spend more money on extra junk you don’t need,” he explains.
11. Buddy up
“When you feel supported, you become more empowered,” Mazur says. “Having a partner in your plan is one of the most underrated tools for being successful when it comes to changing your nutritional habits.” Whether it’s a girlfriend, buddy, roommate, colleague, etc.—psychological research shows a group approach helps you. And in the end, you can be more successful in maintaining your good habits because you’re being held accountable. You have the social support, guidance, and encouragement.
12. Ignore the scale (sometimes)
While weighing yourself everyday can keep you on track, sometimes focusing on your overall health and well-being is more beneficial, Mazur says. How do you feel during the day? After a workout? A week into your new regimen? If you feel energized and optimistic, great; if you feel depleted and miserable, make some changes. Those numbers will balance out over time; besides, if you’re working out and bulking up, you could see the numbers on the scale climb as you drop fat and gain muscle. That’s no reason to panic.
Use these tips to help make smarter, healthier food choices. They’ll keep you energized and ready for anything your workout throws at you. They’ll also keep you from dulling the ache of hunger by munching through packs of gum or eating salt out of the communal office pretzel bowl.