DIET QUALITY: DOES IT MATTER?
With the uprising of “dietary movements” such as flexible dieting and If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM from here on), it seems some people have lost sight of the importance of overall diet quality.
IIFYM seems to be the dieting revolution for many people out there seeking to get lean. Including treats, fun- and junkfoods in your diet whilst monitoring your total food intake (aka: tracking macros) and actually lose bodyfat anyway? Yes, it’s possible. By the gods of thermodynamics, who would’ve thought it possible! Truly, being fixated on macro targets and hitting your daily totals seems to be the ultimate lifestyle hack. Imagine the crap you can put into your body and get away with while getting lean! Screw broccoli, rice and chicken. Macros are all that matter for manipulating body composition, after all. Pre-workout poptart and post-workout pizza on the daily!
Pre workout pop-tart time! 300 kcal / 4,5 P / 54 C / 7,5 F for 1.5 Smores poptart! SO WORTH IT ALWAYS (not always!).
Not so fast. Before you decide to down another bag of skittles as staple pre/intra-workout fuel: allow me to get straight to the point of this article and answer the question I presented in the title.
Does diet quality matter? Hell yes it does.
There is more to dieting than “just” hitting macro targets, reaching your weekly calorie goals, and fine tuning your macros when you stall – if you happen to give a damn about your health, that is. And you should!
In this article I’ll explain why it’s important to put emphasis on both diet quantity (total calorie/macro intake) and diet quality (good food selection) if you want to lead an awesome and healthy lifestyle, whilst rocking an awesome and strong body.
Diet quanity matters. A hell of a lot even. When I refer to “quantity” in a diet, I’m talking about your total food intake: the amount of calories and macronutrients you consume. You read all about calories, protein, fats & carbs in the previous parts of this series, remember?
A quick recap on one of the laws of thermodynamics when it comes to body composition: if you are in a calorie deficit, you will lose weight / if you are consuming an isocaloric diet, you will maintain weight / if you eat at a calorie surplus, you will gain weight. This is the fundamental principle of dieting which will largely determine what happens to your body composition over time. Understanding this is, in my opinion, essential for setting up a successful, sane and long-term diet plan. If someone doesn’t get this simple concept, they’ll probably set themselves up for failure and be mindf*cked all the time.
Theoretically, you could lose weight on a junkfood-only diet. But does that mean you should?
If you are even remotely considering “yes” – then abandon all hope, for something is wrong with you. Deep in your mind and soul (kidding, kinda) youknow eating a junkfood-only diet is probably not the best idea in the world, especially from a “long term health” perspective.
Now, I’m obviously giving a very extreme example here. Not a lot of people eat a junkfood-only diet (I sincerely hope), although some people have made a conscious effort to show it is indeed possible. Most of us have probably heard about the “Twinkie diet” or the guy that lost 56 pounds after 6 months on a “McDonalds only diet” right? These examples show that calorie deficits equal weightloss isn’t exactly rocket science. I could create the Protein & Pickles Diet – and yes, people could lose weight on that.
Meal #2 of the Protein & Pickles diet – basically the same as meal #1 (and #3 and #4) – a plate of pickles and a scoop of whey. The can of coke zero is one of the few things I allow for non-calorie variety sake – I’m a reasonable coach like that. Make sure it’s caffein free coke though, because my morning protocol already has you ingesting more caffein than necessary to give you a fatburn kickstart. Also, please note that I’m totally not serious here.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I love the occasional huge carb meal and insanity feast. I share some of them on the site and social media as well – though mine usually aren’t anywhere near the level of leangainsmeals (who enjoys slamming down complete cereal boxes and gigantic portions of rice, which obviously totally works for him!). To me, it’s fun to do every once in a while. The every once in a while part is crucial here.
I was looking for a carb bowl picture of myself with a pop-tart in it, since poptarts are THE IIFYM food embodiment. Found one! This is 500 grams of quark, 200 grams of yogurt, 100 g blueberries, 50 g dried cranberries, some gingerbread with peanut butter and a pop-tart. A rather high calorie post workout meal that I “fit” into my meal plan. I feel context is important to note: my other 2-3 meals on the day are typically low on “treats” and emphasize calories from more “wholesome/healthy foods”. In other words: I don’t try to squeeze in a poptart at every meal (lol).
When you abuse the concept of fitting poor food choices into your “macro budget” and end up saving the bulk of your daily calories/macros for these “fun foods” frequently – you’ll end up with a rather poor diet overall – especially if you’re not a very active person that doesn’t burn tons of calories and/or has to thrive on a lower calorie intake to maintain/lose weight.
So, next to diet quantity – macros and calories – it’s important to zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture. Keep context in mind as well, before you label a food or meal as “bad” or “good”. You can obviously get fat from overeating “healthy” foods (enjoy eating butter and nuts ad libitum on your “low carb diet”) and there’s no such thing as a truly “bad” food that automatically triggers fat gain. But, there is such a thing as a bad diet, or making poor food decisions frequently (which basically translates to a bad diet anyway).
Flexible dieting boils down to being conscious about your caloric intake and having a general flexible approach towards nutrition and dieting. You follow some rough (or strict, depending on your goals or phase of the diet) macronutrient guidelines you or someone else set up for yourself, track your macros, keep track of body composition changes and eat foods you enjoy frequently while working towards your physique and/or health related goals. Generally,people find it easier to adhere to a more flexible dieting approach than compared to a very strict diet. Rigid dieting methods seem to be more associated with eating disorder symptoms and a higher BMI than flexible dieting approaches as well.
Within the concept of flexible dieting, there are no food restrictions and no food is demonized. That’s a good thing, because demonizing foods without taking context into consideration – looking at the diet as a whole – is old. You have a daily “macro budget” that you can “spend” on various foods: every food can “fit” into someone’s diet plan if there is “room” for it. Personal strategies that work well for the individual (think: Intermittent Fasting, low or high meal frequency, keto, paleo, low/high carb, moderate fat and carb intake, etc.) can be utilized to enhance the “effectiveness” of a flexible approach to dieting. It makes the approach to dieting flexible, personal and sustainable.
What works well for you? That’s something you have to experiment with and find out for yourself. Read about nutrition and expand your knowledge. Apply the knowledge, or get someone to help you out with it. After a while of consciously experimenting with your food intake and doing some fine-tuning, you will probably end up finding something that “works” well for you and that you enjoy doing. It’s important to keep in mind that patience and consistency are required in order to be successful in your journey towards a better version of yourself. If a certain approach or strategy works for you and you enjoy it (and it’s practical for you); keep doing it! Sustainability is key.
“Macros are all that matter” / Abusing IIFYM
Back to the IIFYM topic (interested in the rather funny origin of it? Click here). I personally like to think that IIFYM provides a fine basic framework for a diet. It can be a decent starting point (that needs some detail-tweaks, but more on that later).
Why do I think it’s a decent starting point? Simply because of the awareness it can help create. Through monitoring and tracking food intake, it will help people become conscious about their total food intake in terms of quantitative data – calories and macros – which are crucial for succesfully altering body composition. Tracking macros/calories is not the ultimate 100% accurate and failsafe method that’ll work magnificently for just everyone and their moms out there, but it’s definitely a much better way to gauge food intake than guesstimating – simply because most people tend to severely underestimate what they really eat.
If you have some things to keep in check – carbs, protein, fats – and finally, TOTAL CALORIE INTAKE – you have some data to hold on to and work with. If you have a (rough) indication of how many calories you are consuming, you can make a conscious effort to LOWER your calorie intake when trying to lose fat when you stall (or to UP your calorie intake when trying to gain weight and stalling). If you’ve attempted to change your body composition but have been unsuccesful, “tried everything” except tracking food intake, but don’t want to give tracking macros/calories a shot for whatever reason: please leave now. You’re probably too lazy to make effort, and I suggest you go back to “trying everything”.
As touched upon earlier in the article, problems tend to arise when people abuse the IIFYM approach. Venturing into the “macros are all that matters” territory of thinking can lead to people making poor food choices frequently – which sucks if you happen to give a damn about your health and long term progress.
Before moving on, I’d like to mention another pitfall of IIFYM: the potential neuroticness to “exactly hitting your macros”. There is absolutely no need to be overly obsessive about hitting exact macro numbers: it’s fine to work with macro ranges and looking at total weekly calorie intake. So save yourself that stress!
Applying the 80-90% / 10-20% guideline
A quick mention again of this simple guideline I like (from Alan Aragon’s “The Dirt on Clean Eating” article): make the bulk of your diet consist of healthy, wholesome foods. About 80-90% of your calories should be “quality calories” from wholesome, healthy, “clean” foods. Yes, you know what types of foods I probably mean. 10-20% of your diet can come from whatever you want. Yes, these may be the “less healthy” food options if you’d like to include them in your diet for whatever reason (usually enjoyment and for prolonging sustainability/sanity). I suggest you do not overcomplicate the guideline too much.
Lifting & Chef brother Shane is all about that clean eating.
With that said, don’t be the fool that tries to cram in >600 calories of junk on a <2000 kcal diet frequently. From a satiety standpoint, fitting 3 poptarts into such a low calorie budget is stupid. Those 600 calories could be “spend” on more satiating and more micronutrient/fiber dense foods. Some may laugh at the “eat clean” mantra and say it’s outdated: but there are definitely multiple benefits to emphasizing wholesome foods in your diet. Make. Smart. Decisions.
Macro- AND Micro-Managing Your Diet
Dietary freedom and flexibility is awesome, but not at the expense of health or diet sustainability. It’s important to care about “diet details” such as fiber, micronutrients and “healthy fats”. Honestly, these are not really “details” because they’re actually very important aspects of the diet!
For a fun/better analogy: look at it as “micro-managing” your diet. With Macro–Managing you work on hitting your calorie + macronutrient goals > covering the diet quantity aspect of your diet. With Micro–Managing you cover the quality aspect of your diet.
Here’s a few things I suggest you take into account for Micro-Managing your diet:
- Assure an adequate intake of fiber, for improved satiety and supporting gut-health and healthy bowel movement (fiber will help make your toilet visits better). 14 g fiber per 1000 kcalor 20 g as a bare minimum are fine guidelines. Honestly, hitting fiber intake shouldn’t be too hard if you focus on good foods (basically, eating a lot of vegetables).
- Assure an adequate intake of micronutrients to promote good overall health and prevent micronutrient deficiencies and health complications. “Focus on micronutrients” is a bit of a vague statement I realise, but by emphasizing mostly wholesome, natural and micronutrient dense foods, this should really not present a big problem. If you avoid certain food categories (meat / dairy / gluten / etc. ) for whatever reason (allergies or intolerance / ethical reasons / etc.) – make sure you find out what micronutrients you could be potentially missing out on, and do something to correct it (I.E. supplementation).
- Focus on satiating foods. In order for a diet to be sustainable, it’s important to include plenty of foods that provide satiety – especially if you’re trying to lose fat while following a calorie deficit protocol. Why? Because being hungry generally sucks. Want to know what satiating foods are? Take a look at satiety indexes. Assure enough protein in your diet (1.8 g/kg is fine), and eat plenty of hig fiber foods as well. Aside of that, seek out “low calorie, high volume” foods to help fill you up for few calories.
- Include dairy products in your diet (reasons: great source of protein and calcium & satiety).
- Eat plenty of low calorie vegetables (an absolute minimum of 400 grams a day is a guideline I use). Next to providing fiber and micronutrients, they’ll help fill you up. Include fruits in your diet (>2 servings) every day as well.
- Don’t abuse protein supplements (or other supplements for that matter). I’ve been there and I still see this happening a lot: some people get the bulk of their daily (often excessive) protein intake through protein supplements. How about actually eating some satieting protein rich foods instead? Nothing wrong with a serving of protein to supplement your diet (hitting 1.8 g/kg shouldn’t be too hard though), but there’s no need for highly excessive protein consumption– and getting the bulk out of that through supplements are calories that could be spent elsewhere (solid protein foods, healthy fats, carbs, etc.).
- Meal timing and meal frequency: I’m talking about personal preference of calorie distribution/spreading here. Make strategic choices that fit your preferences and lifestyle. In general: lower-calorie and focus on satiating foods/meals early on the day (and before workouts) and saving some “macro room” for the evenings (and post workout) seems to be quite an effective strategy for a lot of people trying to look good.
- Consider the topic of carb-tolerance. Some people respond well to a high carb / lower fat diet (I.E. endurance athletes), others perform better on a low carb / higher fat diet (usually sedentary folks and/or those with a higher bodyfat percentage), and a lot of athletes do well on a balanced carb/fat approach. Exercise promotes insulin sensitivity, which can help increase carb-tolerance – so generally active people tend to tolerate carbs a bit better than sedentary/overweight individuals. I’d suggest you keep this in mind, and experiment with the ratio of fat/carbs in your diet – and see what you respond well to. For example: if you tend to get KO’d rather easily by a high carb intake – keeping total carbohydrate intake a bit lower and/or saving the bulk of your “carb allowance” for later on the day (after workouts / in the evenings) could be an effective strategy for you.
- Ensure an adequate intake of healthy fats in your diet for various health- and performance related reasons (I.E. promoting hormonal health and increased testosterone production). Follow the recommended guidelines for fat earlier in these series. Include fatty fish, whole eggs, avocado, olive oil, some nuts or nutbutters, cheese, coconut, etc. in your diet – I wouldn’t suggest “trading” healthy fats for sugary carb sources! There are no clear guidelines on an “optimal” fat intake, but I tend to recommend a somewhat equal spread of Saturated / Mono-Unsaturated / Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acids to ensure a good fatty acid profile in your diet. If you are interested in the fatty acid profiles of various foods, take a look at this USDA page.
- Some more tips for a healthy fat intake: If you never eat fatty fish, you could be missing out on omega 3 (EPA & DHA). You could get omega 3 fats from plant-based sources such as flax seed oil (in the form of ALA: alpha Linolenic Acid), but since these have to be converted to a usable form with a bunch of hassle in the body– I’d sooner suggest either eating fatty fish on a more frequent basis OR considering a quality omega 3 supplement (look for a high EPA & DHA ratio per serving). Also, pay attention to the omega 6 : omega 3 ratio of your diet. A ratio somewhere between 4:1 to 1:1 is favorable – higher ratio’s seem to be quite inflammatory (so does a high intake of trans fats), which sucks for your general health. In practise: make sure you include omega 3-rich food sources in your diet and don’t overdo it on omega 6 sources (typically, vegetable oils)
Conclusion: Quality Matters
Diet quality definitely matters, so be mindful of both the quantity and quality aspects of your diet. Keep in mind that context is important: always look at the diet as a whole before labeling something as “good” or “bad”. Emphasize wholesome, micronutrient-dense and healthy foods in your daily food selection. Macro- and Micro-Manage your diet for your physique goals, long term progress and general health!
Let’s close this diet quality article with a picture of a quality meal. Glorious beef – avocado – veggie stirfry – potato dish!