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Nutrition & fitness: 17 principles for weight loss, strength building, and more

We had a big talk about fitness and nutrition with Nathan Harewood – a world-class contest prep coach, 3 times WBFF Coach of the Year who coached 51 WBFF World Titles. We discussed basic rules of healthy nutrition, its role in fitness, and the effectiveness of various dietary approaches, and put everything together for you in this article.

Wondering if intermittent fasting could help you lose weight or if having a cheat meal could sabotage your progress? This article will answer your questions and give you 17 principles & tips for switching to a healthy diet, losing weight, and getting stronger.

1. Start eating healthier by just “cleaning up” your habits

Do you snack during the day? Do you have children and sample their food / finish their meals? Do you enjoy watching drama series with a glass of soda or a pack of chips? Start by paying attention to what you eat during the day and be very mindful about snacking.

There’s a lot you can achieve by just cleaning up those small habits and snacks that you don’t even realize you’re having – and they all add up to your total calorie consumption. Ask yourself, why am I eating right now? Am I hungry? Or am I just bored/got used to it? Remember that your body is not a trash can, and you shouldn’t just throw in it everything that’s left on other people’s plates or nearly-expired products from your fridge.

2. Develop a diet plan that suits your lifestyle

When you are planning your diet, make sure to keep your lifestyle in mind. You just won’t stick to any extreme changes that you personally don’t like, even if they work wonders for some other people.

Choose a diet that you can follow for the rest of your life. Sometimes, people go through the keto diet or intermittent fasting and hate it – and it doesn’t take long for them to give up and just get back to their old unhealthy habits feeling unable to change and frustrated.

Instead of extreme temporary measures, choose a long-term healthy nutrition plan that takes into account your likes, dislikes, and lifestyle. Remember, that you can get lean and have a normal life without any extra strict diets.

3. Take your time – don’t get all in at once

When we start switching to a healthier lifestyle, we feel motivated and encouraged. But soon after that, we realize that it’s much harder than we thought and just swing right back to normal. This happens mostly because people try to change everything at once and are not patient with themselves.

Instead, progressively adapt your lifestyle to where you want to go. Start removing unhealthy habits and adding healthy ones slowly one by one. Work on each one until you feel you can hold it – then move on to the next one. Take small steps, and you’ll get much further.

Top view of a bottle, greens and fruits
Photo by Vitalii Pavlyshynets on Unsplash

4. To lose weight, get in a calorie deficit, but don’t drop too much

It seems quite simple – calorie deficit leads to losing weight, and calorie surplus leads to gaining weight. In reality, if you eat much fewer calories than your body needs, you not only won’t be getting proper amounts of essential nutrients, but it can even slow down your metabolism and prevent you from reaching your weight-loss goals.

To drop weight, eat fewer calories than you need – but just a little. Don’t make big changes at once, take small steps and see how your body reacts.

5. Chew your food properly

When you don’t properly chew your food, eat fast, and just swallow everything in big pieces, your body has to work extra hard to digest it.

When you eat slower and chew everything well, your brain has some extra time to get a signal from your stomach that you’re actually full, and don’t need to eat more – that’s how you can also avoid overeating.

6. Eat every 2-3 hours

Have a meal 3-6 times a day including a couple of snacks, depending on how many hours per day you are awake. Have a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 3 hours between your meals – that way you will avoid sugar spikes, mood swings, and overeating.

Everybody gets tired in the afternoon – you can cheat it by eating a healthy snack to get through it and not feel drained of energy.

7. Don’t go to bed hungry if you wake up during the night

If you wake up hungry in the middle of the night, start having a high-protein lean meal 1 hour before going to bed. Your body will be able to deal with the food during that time, and you won’t feel hungry during the night.

8. Watch not only the quantity, but also the quality of your food

Quantity of nutrients isn’t all you need to consider; their quality is as important. 70 grams of fat coming from bacon, burgers, or other fast food isn’t the same as 70 grams of fat coming from avocado or nuts. Your body can’t effectively use the nutrition from unhealthy food, so it’s going to starve and won’t function properly. Choose healthy whole foods and avoid processed and refined foods.

At the same time, be conscious about how much you eat. Even if something is healthy, you can still get too much of it and gain weight, so “healthy” doesn’t mean we can eat it without a limit.

Top view of a meal with eggs, vegetables and avocado
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

9. Intermittent Fasting is not a universal weight-loss solution

Intermittent fasting has been used therapeutically for centuries, and lately, it has also been positioned as an effective weight-loss practice. Although it can be true for some people – it can help you stop overeating as you avoid food altogether for a certain amount of time – but often, it can cause the opposite effect.

After avoiding food for several hours, people start craving it so much that they tend to overeat once they finally get to their meal. It can also cause hormonal imbalance (which especially concerns women whose hormonal system is usually more sensitive to fasting) and all its “perks”. And finally, there are multiple possible side effects such as dizziness, blur vision, memory loss, and lack of energy.

So, unless it’s medically prescribed to you, think twice before you start practicing intermittent fasting, and check your hormones and overall health state to make sure this will not negatively impact your body and wellbeing.

10. Cardio on an empty / full stomach is just a personal preference

Some people don’t like working out when their stomach is heavy, while others need to fuel their bodies before exercising. In the end, people are getting lean as effectively with fasted training as with non-fasted training, so just choose what works for you.

If you can wake up in the morning and go for a cardio workout without having breakfast, then just do so. If you feel weaker and lacking energy without any food, then have a meal first.

11. You don’t need 24-hour cleanse fasting (unless it’s medically prescribed)

When you don’t eat anything and just drink liquids for 24 hours, you are also taking good bacteria out of your body and put your organism through unnecessary stress which can throw it off balance. Our body is designed to get rid of toxins naturally, and most of the time it doesn’t need external help to do that.

Besides, if you have a healthy and balanced diet, you don’t need cleansing, because your body doesn’t get those excessive amounts of chemicals and impurities to get rid of. So, instead of putting your body through that stress, start switching to a healthy diet.

If you don’t have a medical prescription to do fasting for 24 hours, don’t do it because it will not be beneficial for you. And it will be especially bad for those who want to build muscle, because you’ll start to lose muscle mass without eating for 24 hours.

12. Keep your calorie intake consistent throughout the day

Plan your meals in such a way that they don’t differ a lot in calorie value. 100-150 calories difference is okay, but when the difference is too high, it can cause sugar spikes, push you to overeat, and lead to weight gain.

A bowl of soup on a table
Photo by MadMax Chef on Unsplash

13. Cheat meals facilitate weight loss and bring other benefits

Cheat meals are what you don’t normally eat in your diet – whether it’s a type of food or its amount.

They help your body remember how to process various types of food and avoid unpleasant surprises when you eat something unusual. Besides, cheat meals facilitate your weight-loss efforts, as once you’ve had a cheat meal, your metabolism has to speed up to deal with it, and some extra fat gets burned afterwards too.

How often you can have a cheat meal depends on the aggressiveness of your diet. If you’re constantly in a calorie deficit, then you need to do it more often, because there’s a risk of excessive calorie deficit. In opposite, if you have found a good calorie balance, too much of a calorie surplus coming from a cheat meal can be excessive and throw you out of that balance.

14. Consistency in nutrition is key when it comes to muscle building

As we work out, we tear down our muscles, and as they heal, they become bigger. To facilitate that process, we have to make sure that we feed our body with muscle-building foods.

Make sure you get quality protein daily – whether it’s coming directly from your food or you use protein powders, and do so consistently. If you miss 30-40 grams of protein per day, you are going to lose your muscle, so be consistent if you want to achieve lasting results.

15. Post-workout meal is extremely important

To help muscles replenish and heal themselves, have an easily digestible post-workout meal (for example, a protein shake) within 45 minutes after you finished your workout. It will help your body get the necessary nutrients and will be beneficial for your fitness goals regardless of whether you want to lose weight or gain muscle. Focus on carbs and protein and avoid excessive fats because they are going to slow down digestion.

A woman prepares a protein shake in a blender

16. For better performance, fuel your workouts with lots of carbs and protein

If you are aiming for better performance and want to increase power and strength, eat as much protein and carbs as you can to help your body recover from intensive workouts and build muscle.

Make sure your diet consists of whole foods, and don’t forget post-workout meals reach in protein and carbs that will stimulate muscle growth and improve recovery.

17. Carbs cycling can help you get through a training plateau  

When you increase the amount of food you eat (for example, when you want to gain muscle), your body has to adjust to the new consumption. Carb cycling gives your body the needed break and helps you achieve your fitness goals.

As you eat more carbs, your metabolism increases while your body is trying to catch up with all that increased food amount. And then, when you make a medium- to low-carb day, your body is able to digest all the food and becomes hungry. Then, there’s a high-carb day, and your body gets the food surplus again.

This practice can help you become less carb-sensitive and get through the training plateau. Besides, it helps learn your low and high carb limits.

As with other dietary approaches, it’s best to develop your carbs cycling plan together with a professional fitness coach, to make sure you get a proper amount of nutrients and only do what’s beneficial for your body.

No matter what your fitness goals are, nutrition plays a key role in how successful your efforts will be. Eat balanced meals, choose whole foods, and slowly build up your gym intensity.

Being realistic is very important too - don’t expect to get in perfect shape right away. Instead, slowly follow your plan, take one step at a time, and keep going. And when you feel you want to change, it’s always best to have a professional fitness trainer by your side whom you can trust, who will understand your needs, support you, and help you achieve your goals in the safest and healthiest way.

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