Nutrition can be a complicated topic for most people. Most people go out of their way to make it even harder. For some reason people believe that the more complicated and more restrictive diet and exercise is on their life then the results will be that much more drastic. In some cases, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the victory feels. With nutrition, however, it shouldn’t be this way.
At some point the law of diminishing returns must be understood. I like to refer to the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 Rule. It basically states that 20% effort produces 80% of the results and after that initial 20% input all efforts return significantly less.
If you came up with 10 strategies to improve your diet then by this principle, following only 2 of them most of the time would get you nearly 80% of the way there. So, for fun, lets make a list.
Extreme macro manipulation – eg. Keto
Calorie cycling & re-feeds
There’s the list, though, not all strategies are equal. The most important two are at the top of the list being calorie consumption and food variety. These two strategies will get you 80% of the way there. By eating an appropriate amount, you will take care of energy requirements and choosing a variety of foods will, in most cases, limit deficiencies for most people.
Neither of these strategies are overly complicated or painful to turn into habits.
The most effective ways to follow through with these strategies are to use the hand portion measurement system from Precision Nutrition and add simply try to make your plate colourful and rotate the foods you eat often or add a “super-shake” to your day.
The hand portions are the easiest way to portion out your meals and control over-eating. Eating slowly and only til 80% full goes right along with the hand portions. By only going to 80% full and eating slowly you can prevent stuffing yourself with unneeded calories without the added stress of tracking calories.
Bonus: you generally take your hands with you when you eat out.
For the super shake: add a few veggies, some fruits and maybe some nuts or seeds and experiment with different combinations. Add some protein powder to round off the nutrient profile and add to your protein consumption for the day.
The shake ensures you get at least one healthy meal and increases your fruits and veggie consumption for the day. It’s an easy way to improve consumption while you are working to improve your habits and it takes almost no effort.
Both of these efforts are classified as “Level 1” strategies. 90-95% of the world will operate on Level 1 habits and achieve better health. Very seldom do people need to work towards Level 2 and 3 habits, even though we try our hardest to complicate our lives as much as possible. Level 2 and 3 habits are generally not sustainable long term for most people.
Level 2 and 3 habits are generally used for short periods of time for sports and contest prep. Many advanced fitness and Instagram personalities will use these strategies but they often make their living off fitness whereas most normal people don’t have the brain power left to worry about calorie and carb cycling. And they don’t need to. They can be healthy simply by using the hand measurements technique, eating slowly and adding in some veggies or a super shake.
The key to success is to first identify your limiting factors. What is stopping you from making these changes in the first place? Do you have too much junk food in your house? Throw it out and stop buying it! If there’s chips, you’ll eat chips. Do you keep bowls of candy on the coffee table like grandma? Stop doing that! If there’s no food preparation tools, you won’t prepare food. Take steps to make these changes as simple as possible. (There will be hiccups along the way but tomorrow’s another day. Read the Clean Slate Policy to help with your mindset.)
You should be looking for high-impact, low effort habits to create. For example, drinking more water will generally help reduce alcohol and soft drink consumption and aid in a full feeling. Both effects contribute to calorie consumption.
Remember that Level 1 habits contribute to 80% of the results. There may be 15 different habits that contribute to the 2 major strategies of calorie consumption and food variety but over time they require little effort. Level 2 and 3 strategies can fill in the remaining 20% of results but at a much smaller rate of return. For the numbers people out there, maybe this will help.
Level 1 strategies will yield about 40% each in results. The remaining 8 strategies make up 20% total, so about 2-3% each. Timing your meals perfectly isn’t going to mean shit if you eat twice as much as you need. Carb cycling won’t do fuck-all if your body is deficient in most vitamins and minerals and can’t metabolize your macro split properly. To be as cliché as possible, you need to walk before you can run. Don’t major in the minor. One foot in front of the other. Get your ducks in a row.
Expending 10% effort on 2-3% return and missing out on the 40% of results doesn’t mathematically make sense to me, and hopefully not you.
But what about going keto? Or Paleo? Or following Atkins? All diets can work but they are generally successful based on the first two strategies plus one or two more. Most people that are successful with any of these diets are successful because they get 80% of their results from consuming a reasonable amount of food and they usually start making healthy choices when following these diets. They also get the added 2-6% of results from the level 2 behaviours built in to these diet styles. However, what often happens is they haven’t prepared themselves to fall back on their healthy habits if they can’t sustain level 2 and 3 habits.
I’m a numbers guy and the 80/20 rule can’t be ignored. If you’re like me the return on investment for strategies like calorie consumption makes it obvious that level 1 habits are the most important to build. Look for the simple changes you can make that will have the largest impact. Accept imperfection and don’t make your diet complicated for the sake of complication. More pain doesn’t always lead to more gain.