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There’s something comforting about knowing exactly what, when, and how much you’re going to eat every day. You never have to think about food, and you’re guaranteed results whether you’re cutting, maintaining, or bulking. That’s the beauty of meal planning. On the other hand, weighing, tracking, planning, preparing, and packaging all of your meals for the day (or week) in advance is very tedious. Is there an easier way? There is, and you’re going to learn all about it in this podcast.
Joining me on this podcast is John North, and we’re discussing how to eat without tracking your macros or every gram of food while still improving your body composition and achieving your goals.
In case you’re not familiar with John, he and I have been working together behind the scenes for years on articles, books, podcasts, and other content. In fact, he’s the Director of Content for Legion. He’s also completed over 100 triathlons and cross-country, cycling, and adventure races, has squatted and deadlifted over 400 pounds and bench pressed over 300 pounds, and has researched and written for over a dozen organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. So he walks the walk and know a thing or two about helping people get into the best shape of their lives.
In our discussion about meal planning, we chat about . . .
- The basic principles of setting up a meal plan
- Who should and shouldn’t follow a meal plan
- Consistency versus precision when it comes to food
- Why its not necessary to be perfectly accurate with your food intake
- Strategies for easily reducing your calories without tracking your food
- A “training wheels” approach to eating “outside of the spreadsheet”
- And more . . .
So, if you’re curious about how to eat and make progress in your fitness without weighing all your food, tracking it, and planning all of your meals, you’re going to enjoy the strategies and tips in this podcast!
0:00 – Try Whey+ risk-free today! Go to buylegion.com/whey and use coupon code MUSCLE to save 20% or get double reward points!
6:09 – Should I use meal planning tools?
9:57 – How do I set up a basic meal plan?
14:44 – What are your guidelines with flexible dieting?
16:15 – What are your diet guidelines when cutting?
17:31 – Do you think it’s good to follow a meal plan every so often?
Mentioned on the Show:
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What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Mike: Hi there, and welcome to Muscle for Life. I am Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today to learn about meal planning, how to make it easier and more enjoyable, and that means how to move away from having to weigh and track and plan, and prepare and package everything. Now that approach works and it’s what I’d recommend if you want to absolutely guarantee results.
Let’s say you are trying to lose weight or even gain weight, and you want to make sure that you are going to reach your goal. Then going all in on meal planning. More or less guarantees that you are going to get there so long as you can mostly stick to the plan. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be able to follow it fairly well most of the time.
And then when you are not following it, you have to make sure that you are not binging basically. Now that said, if you are like most people, you don’t particularly enjoy all in meal planning, it is not a viable lifestyle. It is not something that you want to do for the rest of your life. Now, what you do want though for the rest of your life is the body you want is the body composition that you want.
And many people struggle to reconcile those things. They. Think that the only way to really get and stay fit is rigorous meal planning, or they just personally struggle with that. They find that they tend to gain weight, for example, when they get off the meal plan and try to take a more intuitive approach to their eating, and then eventually they have to come back to the meal plan to get their body composition back to where they want it to.
And they don’t like that yo-yo effect. Ideally they would not have to follow a strict meal plan, and they would also not. Get fatter when they are not following a strict meal plan. And so in this interview, I am going to be talking with my guest, John North, about setting up a diet that allows you to maintain or improve your body composition without having to.
Way and track everything that you eat. And in case you are not familiar with John, he is the director of content for my Sports Nutrition company Legion. And he and I have been working behind the scenes for years now on articles and books and podcasts and other content. He has helped me a lot with research and drafting and outlining and And John has also completed over 100 triathlons and cross country and cycling and adventure races, and John has also researched and written for over a dozen organizations, including the National Institutes of Health.
So he walks the walk, he knows a thing or two about getting into great shape and helping other people get into great shape. Before we sink our teeth into it, one of the easiest ways to increase muscle and strength gain is to eat enough protein and to eat enough high quality protein. Now you can do that with food, of course, you can get all of the protein you need from food, but many people supplement with way protein because it is convenient and it’s tasty, and that makes it easier to just eat enough protein, and it’s also rich in essential amino acids, which are crucial.
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It really can’t lose. So go to bi legion.com/way now. Use the coupon code muscle at checkout to save 20% or get double reward points and then try way plus risk free and see what you think. John, we finally make this happen. We’ve been talking about doing this for a little bit now.
John: Oh yeah. A few years now.
Mike: That’s already been that long.
John: There’s a plot to keep me off the podcast. It’s a conspiracy theory
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s because we’re too busy, like playing video games and getting tattoos and stuff, yeah.
John: Driving your Lamborghini.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. No. I’m excited to, to do this and make this a regular.
Thing. And in, in the intro for people who didn’t listen to the intro, John has been working with me in content for years now and you’ll see a lot of his stuff over at Legion’s blog and he has helped with a lot of research and drafting for books and for my podcast and so wealth of information and that’s why I wanted to get him here on the podcast and to help me. Not have to talk so much, basically.
John: Yeah. Take over some of the jabbering jobs. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think this would be a cool podcast just because it, grew out of a conversation we were having on the shredded chef where we were talking about different meal planning strategies.
Mike: And, which by the way, for people listening, that’s Mike Cookbook, John and I are working on updating it. So we’re gonna I guess it would be the fourth edition technically. Cause I’ve updated it several times over the.
John: Yeah. And right now it has a lot of really good information on meal planning, and this is something I believe we’ve worked more into bls, tls, Muscle for Life, all the books now I think have a bit more of this nuance to meal planning, right?
Where for a long time, I think this largely comes from the kind of fitness influencer culture, right? Where it’s, Oh, I’m on plan, I’m getting ready for the show. It’s something we joke about a lot and it’s just very different from what most people want. It’s fine if you wanna get into body building shows.
That sort of thing. And there are a lot of things we can learn from that, but for most people following, say the traditional spreadsheet style meal plan where it tells you exactly what, when, and how much to eat, and you just stick to that and it works great, right? It’s super reliable. It basically guarantees results if you follow it properly and you set it up properly.
But the downside is it’s pretty tedious, Especially if you have a family, if you’re traveling, if you have a demanding job, again, These are all excuses, so to speak. But you could also ask, and maybe there’s also just a better solution too that doesn’t require something this involved.
Mike: Like Why make it harder than it has to be?
John: Exactly. Yeah. And I used to be a hundred percent like that. I I started tracking calories and macros probably before it was really necessary or healthy. I I was like doing cross country when I was a kid and wanted to get a little bit leaner for that.
So I remember, reading like calories of Cheerios when I was, 14 years old and like trying to plan that out. And again, like. Good in the guarantees results and I did get a bit leaner and faster, at that age it’s a little bit weird and unnecessary. So anyway, the point is that there are other ways of doing it and I think Eric Helms is a good example of this as well.
Maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, he’s been able to get bodybuilder like stage ready, lean, not tracking or not weighing or measuring calories. So he is done it more of a intuitive portion style, strategy, which we can get into. So I guess maybe a good way to approach this is, first of all, the goal of this is just to give people small alternatives to that, right?
I think it’s this false dichotomy where you either have to be following a traditional spreadsheet of, here’s that exactly. I’m gonna have 400 grams of, yogurt and 200 grams of blueberries in the morning. And again, totally fine, but not. Necessarily required to get in great shape or stay that way.
So we’ll talk about the pros and cons of that strategy, and then also how you can work your way away from that. Cause what a lot of people do is they use a meal plan like that to get in really good shape, and then they don’t have a, like an offramp strategy, like they’re, that’s all they know is how to follow a meal plan.
And again, that’s not, you can do it for a long time, but it’s not necessarily the best way to stay in shape. And as you said, if there’s no reason, if it’s not a requirement, then why do that? So I guess maybe Mike, you could talk a little bit about, for people who don’t know what the basic idea of how to set up a meal plan is Right.
Just in, like the elevator pitch. This is something you cover obviously in your books, and we’ve covered on the website quite a bit, just so people have a frame of reference for, this is our starting point of what most like fitness people do, and then we can work back from that.
Mike: Yeah, I think we can probably just give a pretty simple summary. So taking the foods that you like to eat and putting together some meals that you would like to eat and figuring out the calories and macros of those meals. And if you’re gonna do that there, there’s a little process you can follow to make it efficient and that’s in.
Bigger leaner, stronger Thinner, Leanear Stronger, for example. But that’s the basic idea, right? For people listening. So you have your target calories for your body composition goal. You’ve worked out your macros. It’s gonna be high protein, carbs and fats are up to you, just preference. And then you take those targets and look at the foods that you like to eat.
Make an extensive list of the stuff that you like to eat. Putting together actual meals. So for breakfast, if you’re like, Eh, I like to eat a smaller breakfast, and I really like eggs and toast, so I’d like to have some eggs and toast. Let me put that in there. All right, good. All. Now lunch. Let’s do the next bigger meal of the day.
I’d like to have a salad of some kind. Here’s the kind of stuff I like to put in the salad. Let me build that out. Okay, good. There’s the numbers. Dinner. Here’s a dinner that I like to eat. Let me put that together. All right, let me add all those numbers up. See where I’m at now. I’ll tweak portions. Maybe I’ll add in a snack or two, add in a dessert.
That’s the basic outline for everybody listening who hasn’t done that yet. And then in the end, what you have. You have a specific list of foods and exact amounts and weighing in grams is or just weighing, but usually do it in grams is definitely the most accurate way. If you want to be pinpoint accurate on your calories and macros, which we’re gonna talk about this is not necessary unless maybe for some people, certain circumstances we could talk about when.
You want to try to push from 80% to a hundred percent, but for most people, with myself included, it’s not worth the extra energy and attention that it requires to go from 80 to a hundred percent. But regardless, you have this specific list to foods specific amounts. Usually sometimes yeah, around this time I’m gonna eat this.
And then around this time, it’s gonna be lunch. Maybe between 12 and one, I’m gonna have that. And for most people, just having worked with a lot of people over the years, what they tend to do is be very specific in the beginning with weighing and measuring everything so they can get an idea of portion sizes and then they don’t weigh and measure everything because they just start eyeballing and go, Yeah, that might be, that’s 200 grams of whatever.
Plus or minus 10 or 15%, not a big deal. No, I think that’s good.
John: Yeah. Again, I think one of the first principles I think that’s useful to keep in mind with meal planning is there’s a balance between, you could say, consistency and precision. I would say the more precise you are, so the more meticulously you track your calorie intake and the more you weigh your foods and everything, you can afford to actually be a little bit more.
All over the place with your food choices, right? That’s the whole, that’s one of the promises of flexible dieting is you can have ice cream and Cheerios this day, and then the next day you can have your broccoli and your salad and people on social media do stuff like this, right? Whereas if you are more consistent, you eat roughly the same kinds of foods and roughly the same amounts every day.
You actually don’t need to be as precise in your tracking because let’s say almost every day I have like Greek yogurt, banana, some blueberries thrown in, something like that. If I’m having two bananas every day, then I just cut that down to one banana if I’m cutting.
You can do little changes like that throughout the day and that adds up to a few hundred calories and that’s it. That’s all you have to do. And if you’re consistent with it, then you don’t need to precisely weigh everything. And that gets into, I think, one of the first steps back from the really rigid meal planning approach.
Is where you have maybe one or two meals that you do track and you weigh everything, and then you have one meal where it’s up to you or one or two meals doesn’t really matter. What I found works well, Again, I don’t meticulously. Anything I eat nowadays, but what I did for a long time was breakfast and lunch would be more structured.
Like you were saying, precise portion size foods, times when I’d eat it. And then dinner was a bit more flexible that way. With my girlfriend, now wife, we could have something different. If I was going to visit friends, we could have something different, go out to a restaurant and you just weren’t so fixated on it.
So that would be one strategy that I think works really well and most people find. When they start trying that, they don’t really notice any downsides as long as you’re smart about it. And this is one of the problems people have is, that the all or nothing approach it gets talked about all the time, is when they’re off plan, they go a little bit crazy.
And I think that usually happens when people have been following a really rigid plan for a long time. Which is another reason I like the strategy because you can introduce yourself to a bit more kind of structured flexibility, you could say. So that would be one alternative. Yeah.
Mike: And in those more flexible meals, I’m assuming though, you had some kind of guidelines that you were following.
John: Yeah, exactly. So when I would do that, I would, I think a good, again, this comes back to the consistency standpoint, but. General, I would say it’s best if, regardless of what your goals are, the kinds of foods you’re eating are roughly the same all the time, right? Like a healthy diet when you’re cutting is gonna look roughly the same as a healthy diet when you’re, lean, gaining, or maintaining.
It’s really just the amounts and maybe you make a few substitutions here and there, right? Okay, you’re having some rice when you’re lean bulking, you change that out for potatoes or squash or something. A little more filling and less calorie dense. But fundamentally, you’re not having.
Drastic changes where you’re going from, tons of bread and the teo and you’re lean bulking to, cutting when you’re just eating salads and chicken breast. But yeah, so just going back to your question, so with the structure, Yeah. So for me it would be, I would have a rough idea, all right?
I’m always gonna have some protein, right? Two or three. Serving as a protein, something like that at dinner, some vegetables. And then, that’s where, especially with restaurants being a little bit flexible there, as long as you get the basics down, like you were saying, you don’t need to be super precise.
So you have a portion or two of protein, you have some fibrous vegetables of some sort, and then you can have something weird at the restaurant, some appetizer that’s just extremely hard to estimate the calories for. Like hummus and something else. Just like weird combinations of stuff.
And as long as you keep your portion sizes reasonable and you don’t go overboard it usually works out pretty well. So what about when you’re cutting. Yeah, even then for me, I don’t track the first, like lunch or breakfast anymore either. It’s still just based on portion sizes essentially.
But in that case, yeah, I mean it’s usually just a matter of being a bit more strict on portion sizes. So if I were lean bulking, it’d be a little bit just larger portions, almost eating too. Okay, I didn’t really need quite that much, I’m having a little bit more than is comfortable when maintaining.
It’s again, we can get into more, that’s almost like full on intuitive eating. Some guidelines for making sure you eat enough protein is essentially what that boils down to. But yeah, even when I was cutting following that strategy, that generally worked well. And you can also experiment with it, right?
If most of us are honest with ourselves, we know when we went too far. Like you get back from the restaurant and you eat at six, and at 10:00 PM you’re still like, burping up your appetizer. You’re like, All right, I wanna a little bit too overboard with the the food consumption there.
And again, it’s just something you have to experiment with too. And obviously it depends on your activity levels. It depends on the size of your breakfast and lunch, right? If you eat a lighter breakfast and lunch, then you can have a bit bigger meal toward the end of the day, which is generally what I prefer.
So yeah the specifics will vary a bit there, but it’s really the same strategy even when cutting. It’s just the portion sizes and maybe some of the food choices, depending on calorie density that change.
Mike: Do you think there’s value in following a meal plan every so often, or at least doing kind of a food audit, so to speak?
John: Where you’re gonna go back to? Alright. This is where I think my calories and macros are, but let me see, because it’s been several months and things, these things tend to go up, not. Yeah. Yeah. So two things on that. Number one is I think anybody who’s really serious about getting in good shape and improving their body composition, especially should follow a strict meal plan at some point, even if it’s just for a few weeks.
And I think, I like to refer to it as your food iq where most people have. Really no conception of how many calories and are in certain foods, especially the more processed stuff, right? I think people are generally surprised at how few calories are in many vegetables and, various protein sources, and then they’re very shocked.
This is, the thing you always see in the media, Oh, this Olive Garden, recipe has, know, 4,000 calories or whatever, which is, it’s crazy when you think about it. People
Mike: listening to, if you haven’t looked at a tablespoon of peanut butter, first, look at the calories and look at how many grams that is and go measure that out.
If you want to feel a little bit depress.
John: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it’s ridiculous. Like most people’s tablespoon of peanut butter is two or three when they actually get down to it. Yeah. Yeah, I think following a structure meal plan like that is really helpful. And I would say the people who seem to do the best with intuitive eating, and there’s an article that we worked on that’s on the website that goes into this where, some people are very against meal planning in general, and they’ll say, Oh, you should just do it based on portion sizes and how your body feels.
There’s validity to that, there’s merit to that. But I think that works best when you have a background of understanding. The calorie content of certain foods, cuz it’s not always obvious.
Mike: Yeah listen to your body that says to eat pizza every day and just lie in bed and watch
John: Netflix. Yeah, exactly. Don’t listen to your body when it comes. Especially, and the funny thing is, in a modern society that just obviously doesn’t work at all, just look around, you look at the stats and especially in America, but other countries as well. But in a pre a primitive previous society, that probably wasn’t bad advice, right?
Listen to your body and yeah. Just based on the food that you had around you, your activity levels, all sorts of other variables that go into that. Take one simple thing, right? We don’t have televisions back in, 1700. So what do you do when you eat a meal? You sit down with your family, you eat some food, you talk, and then you’re done.
Mike: It’s not like you can just sit there and, just keep consuming. And you don’t have unlimited food.
John: Yeah, also true. Yeah, very true. Yeah I do think everyone should follow a meal plan at some point just to, to build this knowledge of what you’re actually eating and what’s in different foods.
And then also I think, as you said, doing some kind of calorie or diet audit periodically. And I would say a good way to think of that is anytime you, your goals change, where, let’s say your’re going from, I wanna get leaner to, I wanna get more muscular, go into a lean bulking phase or maintain, anytime you’re changing your goal, it’s a good idea to do something like that where you track what you’re eating.
And see how that compares to what you were doing previously. And then you can make adjustments. And then also anytime you have a significant change in your food choices, let’s say you are moving to a different area and maybe like the grocery store you used to go to, they have slightly different foods, so you make some changes there.
Or you just get bored with certain meals and you’re like, All right, I don’t wanna have a salad anymore for lunch. I wanna have a sandwich and soup, or something like that. Doing some kind of audit there just to double check and make sure you’re not messing anything up is really smart. So yeah, again, that circles back to that first principle of consistency versus precision, where if you’re really consistent, then a lot of the stuff becomes less essential.
And consistency isn’t always a good thing, right? If you get really bored with something, there’s no reason to stay consistent with it when you’d be happier eating something else. And there was actually a recent study, I just. Looking at, I think you might have shared this with me, right? Where liking, Yeah, liking for food actually influenced satiety, which is pretty interesting.
So if you like a food more, then you actually have a greater improvement in satiety when you eat that food, which, I think most of us have probably experienced. Yeah.
Mike: That’s one of those things that I was not surprised. Anybody who has done enough of this is not surprised, but I just thought it was an interesting little tidbit that there’s some research to indicate that eating foods you like will keep you fuller and more satisfied.
John: Totally. And that also, that’s a whole other rabbit hole. That explains a lot of the the debate around low carb versus high carb. I think a lot of that boils down to personal preference, right? Where you have somebody who. They just fattier higher protein foods, more, they don’t like carbs as much and yeah, sure.
They just get better results with a low carb diet, fine. So that makes sense. So I think moving on to another option would be, you could call it maybe like the cheat meal or cheat day approach, which is you follow a structured meal plan, five, six days a week and then you have a day where you’re going off plan.
Now obvious. There’s a lot of bad advice, right? Four hour body style where you just spend a day, binging on random foods. Yeah, and again, he, Tim Ferris is not the only person to talk about this idea. This is a pretty old idea in fitness where you just go completely off the rails and that would be an example of how not to do it, in my opinion.
Even if you can swing it from a calorie perspective where you can, you manage it so you’re in a pretty extreme deficit during the week, and then you go overboard one day a week from a behavioral stand. Generally, Yeah. That sounds like a
Mike: good way to develop an eating disorder. That’s what that sounds like. Or at least to get a little bit neurotic about food.
John: Yeah. It’s Or what if your your cheat day is two days later because there’s a graduation ceremony or something and your Yeah, it gets really weird where people start playing some weird games.
Mike: And also think about body comp, what that does. Okay, you’re gonna be in a big deficit five or six days outta the week, so you can binge one day outta the week. That’s that. That sounds like probably a good way to Decom Yeah, , yeah. Like the opposite of recom for people listening like you probably That’s a good way.
John: Sounds a good way to eventually just burn away muscle while simultaneously gaining fat over time.
Mike: Yeah. Or least, yeah, maybe like redistributing fat in some weird, lopsided, ugly way.
John: Yeah. That probably is not far off the mark. If you really look at how muscle gain works, right? It’s a relatively slow process like we’ve both written about before where really the key nutritionally for muscle gain is A, eating enough protein in calories, but B maintain that for a while.
We’ve gotten into some of the calorie cycling literature and I think over time that idea. You know these large swings and calorie intake, right? It was like a very popular idea. For a long time. You’re gonna eat a lot more on the days you train a lot less than the days you’re resting. But when you really look at the physiology of muscle growth, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I It’s not a terrible strategy and you could argue maybe it’s, again, I think the main argument is just behavioral. Some people just like to do that. But from a purely physiological standpoint, really, muscle growth is a slow process. It does carry over multiple days, right? So you do a workout, depending on your training status, anywhere from, 24 up to, 72 hours.
Your body is still building and preparing muscle after that workout. There’s debate on that, but it’s a long time, much longer than most people think. So you really want to give your body what it needs to repair and build muscle for over that whole time period. So this idea that, again, you’re gonna be in a calorie deficit, a severe calorie deficit for several days, and then just spike it with a ton of calories is definitely not ideal for muscle gain.
Mike: And probably pretty good for fat gain too. Yeah, it’s people thinking that your body’s muscle building machinery works on like a throttle. Like you can just throttle it down and then hit the afterburners and then throttle it down. If I remember correctly, I think Lyle McDonald I think I remember reading this from him, or he had commented some time ago that, and I’ve experienced this myself, that.
When you go from, let’s say, cutting, when you go from a deficit, so muscle growth is effectively halted unless you’re brand new to a surplus. There seems to be a couple of weeks in there where your body needs to build up some momentum, so to speak. It’s not okay, you just went from a deficit. Maybe you’re in a deficit for months or maybe you’re just maintaining and if you’re maintaining to stay lean, that means that you’re in a slight deficit more often than you’re in a slight surplus.
That is just, and I’m speaking personally, that’s what you have to do if you want to stay lean, so you go from that to the surplus. It’s not like the throttle. It’s not okay. Muscle building was throttled down. Now that first day that you’re in a slight surplus, or maybe you can even be in a larger surplus and then hit the afterburners, that it seems to take a couple of weeks for your body to go from very little to no muscle building to call it maximum or close to maximum potential or noticeable amount of muscle building.
And again, I’ll say that I’ve noticed that myself. I haven’t lean bulk, lean gained in a while cause I just don’t really care to, I just maintain what I’ve got and I’m happy with that. But I can think back to times over the last many years now where I didn’t really start to notice a big increase in my performance.
Until maybe two weeks or so, it probably took two, two and a half weeks of consistent, like you’re saying, not o is a little bit more in a couple days and a little bit less, no consistent surplus. It took a couple of weeks until I started to see more strength in the gym and started to feel more energy in my workouts, and that obviously proceed.
Muscle building. If you’re not gaining any strength, then you’re training, you’re probably not gaining much muscle either.
John: Yeah. And I found the exact same thing, and I’ve even found the same thing in other sports as well, where endurance training, if you’re you notice the same thing in endurance training too.
If you’re in a deficit, your performance is blah, maybe you’re maintaining, but you’re not making much progress. You start eating a bit more, it usually takes a bit of time to realize those gains. But muscle growth, as you said. Yeah, it’s a slow process. You’re not gonna notice.
Real benefits you, you’ll probably feel a little bit better. That’s usually the thing people notice, right? More energy in the beginning. That’s psychological though. Is what I like in, in the beginning. It’s nice to just eat more food.
John: Yeah. It’s also, it’s almost like just removing the stress of or like the annoyance of having to control your calories so much.
You’re just like, All right, I can relax a little bit. It’s just one less thing you have to worry about. But yeah, again, that it’s a process that takes time. So anyway, that’s the short story of why calorie cycling is probably a bit overrated for most people. Hey there. If you are hearing this, you are still listening, which is awesome.
Mike: Thank you. And if you are enjoying this podcast, or if you just like my podcast in general and you are getting at least something out of it, would you mind sharing it with a friend or a loved one or, I’m not so loved one even who might want to learn something new? Word of mouth helps really big in growing the show.
John: So if you think of someone who might like this episode or another one, please do tell them about. So anyway, just to recap, so we have our, full-on structured meal planning. We have our kind of partially structured, we have a few meals and it doesn’t have to be breakfast and lunch. You can do that however you want.
It could be breakfast is your free meal if you like to have that a bit more flexible, but just, incorporating one or two meals that aren’t quite as structured. And then you have your more. Time based system where you may there’s a certain portion of the week where you’re following your meal plan, and then there’s a certain portion where you’re still following a plan.
You, you have a conception of how much you should eat. Again, the idea is not that you just go crazy during these time periods, but it’s more based on just common sense and almost. You can think of that as taking off the training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike, right? You’re still, you’re trying to mimic the same movement, but just without the supports.
And I think that’s a good way to think of it, is really I would say if you’re new to this, try to eat the exact same amounts and the same foods just without weighing it. That’s a good way to transition away from being so dependent on the meal plan to a little bit more of an intuitive approach.
And I think at the end of the line, you have what you know, This is essentially how you and I would say, structure our diets and how most people, Eric Hems is at this point almost anybody who I would say is consistently in pretty good shape. Who does not make a career of being lean, like a, amateur bodybuilder or something follows some combina.
It’s almost like a hybrid between intuitive eating. You could almost call it maybe informed intuitive eating right, Where you have a good understanding of the calorie and macronutrient content of various foods. But at the same time, you don’t need to weigh everything because you’re fairly consistent with what you eat.
And you probably eat it roughly the same times every day. Most people do, even without realizing it. Most people also eat roughly the same foods every day. I think there was even a study I saw at some point, it’s almost like that rule, what is it for, like the size of your social circle or it’s 150 people or something that you can actually know.
It was almost like that for foods where it was like people were eating like 30 to 50 foods and it very rarely, digressed from. Really, essentially what you’re doing is this following the meal plan that’s in your head instead of on paper at that point. And it’s become so ingrained in your daily routine that you just stick with it.
And that’s where I am. I think you, you’re similar, we worked in the office together for a long time, spent a lot of time together. And again, for me it’s like some fruit and yogurt in the morning salad with chicken and some dressing in the middle of the day. Usually like fish, chicken, some kind of meat in the evening with a bunch of vegetables.
And if I’m trying to gain weight or I’m, doing a lot of activity, then it’s usually I substitute maybe some of the broccoli for potato or something like that. It’s nothing complicated. Maybe I throw some chickpeas on the salad and you make little adjustments like that. And then I would say another important component to that is, Just tracking your body weight, it really, it’s So you’re seeing that’s the input is your food and your activity levels.
And then the result is your body weight. And assuming you’re lifting weights, that’s gonna be a very good proxy for body fat levels too. And you’re eating enough protein. So if you see that your body weight is trending up over time, then yeah, that’s where you need to start making some adjustments, right?
So instead of the two bananas, you have one bananas. You take the chickpeas off the salad, like you do a few little things like that. Monitor it for another week or two and you’ll usually see it starts to trend down. Or at least stabilize and then you can just play with it like that.
And I think also another reason the strict meal plan approach is so attractive for people. A lot of this is influenced by body building and whether it’s amateur or professional, even though very few people are really a professional bodybuilder. Even Ronnie Coleman was a police officer.
Mike: So yeah, defined profess.
John: Not to disparage it, but it’s just again, most people don’t make their living doing that. Say you’re a competitive bodybuilder. Put it that way. You have a deadline, and most people don’t, right? Like even if you’re saying like you’re most people, you wanna get a bit leaner for the summer, it’s a very rough deadline.
It’s like, All right, I wanna be. Getting pretty lean in May, June, July, somewhere in there. I can enjoy that through August, September, October. And then I, I’m wearing clothes again and I can be a bit fluffier. There’s not like a specific date. You have to be ready. So you can afford to be a little more flexible and you don’t need that level of precision cuz there’s not a specific date you have to get ready for something.
And even something like a wedding, right? It’s like, all right, I wanna be down in the 8% body fat for my wedding. Nobody’s gonna notice the difference between eight and nine or 10% when you’re wearing a suit. Dude, it doesn’t. Yeah. So anyway, I think that’s a good place to start wrapping it up is, we’ve given people a few different options and I think that’s the thing to keep in mind is the structured meal planning approach is really good for building your understanding and familiarity with the macronutrient and calorie content of various foods.
But I think a good goal for most people who have a family, have a job have other interests, maybe play other sports. Is to try and shoot for kind of this informed intuitive eating approach that we’re talking about. That would be a good goal to work toward. And it’s just a lot less stress too. I haven’t weighed a more of food in a really long time, and it’s just, it’s one of those things that it doesn’t take a lot of time, but it takes a little bit of time every day and that does add up and it takes some.
Mental bandwidth to, to keep tracking that. And another thing too that I noticed that kind of drove me away from that meticulous approach is, for a long time I did a lot of endurance sports and I still like to do stuff outside, hiking, things like that. And you end up having days where you’re burning a lot more calories than not, and it becomes tricky to modify your meal plan for those days.
Now you can do stuff like kind of a structured, pre-planned calorie cycling thing. Like, all right, on a high calorie day, I’m gonna eat Izzy Foods or not. But really it’s difficult to plan that stuff ahead. And oftentimes I think you end up being better off just keeping it a bit more flexible. So you allow yourself to eat a bit more on these days where you’re burning more energy.
Now, grant, most people that it’s not the case, right? They have fairly consistent activity levels, but it’s another thing to consider. And we also all have days where we’re just randomly a little bit hungrier too. And I think in many cases it’s fine to eat a bit more as long as you keep the big perspective in mind, like your big picture goal.
Yeah. Anyway, I think that’s my take on the the meal planning strats.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. A few comments. One is I Dr. Bill Campbell, he would call protein anchoring. He likes to advocate for protein anchored flexible dieting, which. This is really just a macro strategy, so your protein is fixed and your carbs in fast are flexible, which of course, I’ve been advocating really since the beginning of first book whatever 10 years ago.
But you can also apply that to take these kind of off plan or less structured meals or days. This is something that I’ve always done is if I’m gonna go out to eat, I’m not gonna bother trying to calculate calories or macros, but. I probably am going to make sure that I’m eating, maybe 30 to 50 grams of protein that’s gonna be part of that meal.
No, sometimes not. It depends on the circumstances, but I think that’s generally a good idea. So you’re gonna, especially if it’s a day to day where you’re like, I want a flexible dinner situation where I can try different things, eat different recipes, eating with my family. They don’t wanna eat the same stuff every day.
One thing that is gonna be fixed is I’m gonna make sure that there’s 30 to 50 grams of protein in there. And I think that’s smart to do. It also helps with satiety. You’ll tend to eat a lot more carbs and fat than protein if we look at it for calories. And then the same thing would go on the. The treat day, cheat day, whatever, if it’s gonna be a free kind of off planned day, I think it’s smart to shoot for your normal amount of protein intake on that day.
So whatever, probably for most people listening, something around a gram per pound maybe it could be a little bit under that 0.8 to gram whatever, but on that off day, You do still get in your protein one because that’s obviously a good idea for recovery and muscle building and so forth. But I think it’s also a good idea for satiety protein is filling and if you were to take all that protein out and replace it with carbs in fat, those are more fattening calories, so to speak.
But chances are you’re, you might be even hungrier and e even more calories on that day than you would’ve if you would’ve made sure to get in your protein.
John: Yeah, that’s a really good way to, to think of it. And I guess I almost took that for granted that people are just eating adequate protein. But yeah, that’s rule number one is just appropriate number of protein and calories and those things, as you’re saying, influence each other.
So if you’re eating sufficient protein, that’s gonna help regulate your calorie intake. But yeah, I would say no matter what making sure you eat a consistent and sufficient amount of protein every day, regardless of what strategy you’re following, is definitely the way to go. Yeah, no, I totally agree with that.
Mike: And then another comment is just this point you, you’d mentioned toward the end there is if you look like success leaves clues, right? And if you look at a lot of very fit people who stay very fit, it’s almost one for one, they tend to eat the same. Food, every meal, every day, and they just eat that way until they wanna change something.
Okay. I’m sick of my breakfast now that I’ve been eating for six months straight. And often with these people, it doesn’t take major variations to make them enjoy the meal again. So say it’s a Greek yogurt at breakfast with some fruit. It might be just changing from Greek yogurt to ice. Yogurt skier that has a bit of a different taste, a bit of different texture.
It’s just different enough, but basically the same macros just different enough where you’re like, Ooh, I like that again. And I, That’s how I’ve been eating for a very long time. I know that’s how you’ve been eating for a very long time. And again, you can go down the list of. Probably just about everybody who has ever appeared on this podcast who is in very good shape and stays in very good shape.
They get to that point where it’s not, the food is fuel kind of mentality. Yeah, that’s true to some degree, but food is also. Enjoyment. For some people, it’s even a part of their culture and a part of their lifestyle, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, what I’ve noticed in myself and in a lot of these other people is they get to a point where they can eat.
More or less the same foods every meal, every day, and enjoy them for extended periods of time. And then when they’re no longer looking forward to those meals anymore, they just change it. And it doesn’t often take major changes just to get back to looking forward to eating it. That’s at least how I’ve always done it.
Is it as hedonistic pleasing as. I haven’t had, what’s something that’s like really like some greasy fast food that really, if it’s good, I understand why some people have trouble eating. Too much of this food is, it’s not just the enjoyment of eating it. There’s almost like a weird kind of blissful afterglow that unless you overdid it really, honestly I get it right.
John: Post consumptive after glow. Yeah, .
Mike: Seriously? Yeah. So it’s not that, when we’re done here, I’m gonna go make the same salad that I’ve been making for months. But the last change that I made to that salad is I started to add some goat cheese. And I started to crumble up some chips and put it in the salad.
Like tortilla chips or something? Yeah, little tortilla chips with some, with some like spices on ’em or something. It’s some old Florida brand, I think it’s called. I don’t know, some random chips that Sarah found. They’re actually good, but, so I was eating a salad without that just led us, I was really boring lettuce.
John: I remember the old days, you would have romaine lettuce that was like partially chopped. It was like mostly whole leaves of lettuce. You’d throw an entire cooked chicken breast. You wouldn’t cut it up and then some avocado and you’d just spear the chicken and bite on pieces of it.
Mike: That’s how men eat. And so that avocado, that, that would’ve been something that I added where I’m like, All right, I’m actually sick of just pieces of romaine lettuce and like full chicken breast. I’m gonna add something to it. And now, That salad. I’m still eating the salad for lunch, but it has some goat cheese in it.
It has some of these little chips in it, and I cook now ground chicken breast with some herbs and stuff. And also my dressing has changed a little bit, so I just make these little changes. Probably on average every six months or so, I make these little changes and again, what I’m going for. So the reason I made the.
Little changes to the salad is I wasn’t really liking it anymore. Like I actually didn’t look forward to eating it, and I was just forcing myself to eat it. And for me, that’s the point where, sure, I could keep doing that, but why? Why make it harder than it needs to be when I can just add a couple things into it and if I want to account for the extra 200 calories that I’m adding to it, I can just pull from something else.
John: Or it’s only a couple hundred calories. Really doesn’t make that big of a difference. It’s like within the margin of error for even Acura last estimating. Exactly.
Mike: I could accidentally even just burn with a little bit of extra non-exercise activity thermogenesis that I wouldn’t even be aware of.
Or, I take my dogs for one extra 10, 15 minute walk or something. Cool. There we go. And that’s a good idea anyway, right? And so I’ve also made similar changes to my vegetable slop dinner that I’ve been eating for years. So now it’s just a little bit different. I change the vegetables, I put chicken stock in it.
Now I change the spices. I add rice to it. Look at two fancy.
John: It’s still vegetable slot though. Another funny thing I realize too, I often alternate, I guess between the Greek yogurt and bananas and blueberries or whatever, and then just literally the same thing. But I just put it in a blender and smooth, make it into a smoothie and it’s, it’s just more satisfying sometimes.
Again, or like you freeze the bananas and suddenly it tastes very different. But yeah, as you said, most people, this is a very common denominator of staying in good shape.
Mike: What you don’t see is the converse, where it’s, constant eating something different every day, just very random, constantly eating out fast food stuff that’s hard to quantify.
John: And those usually go together, right? Where somebody is not planning ahead, they’re not eating consistently, and it just, it’s almost impossible. Years ago I was working with this guy back when I was doing online coaching with fitness, and he told me he wanted to get in really good shape. And, I was like, All right, cool.
We’re gonna put together a meal plan, blah, blah, blah. And he’s Yeah, but I don’t wanna cook anything. I don’t cook. It wasn’t like, I can’t cook it, I don’t cook , which I always thought was funny.
Mike: What about microwaving? Does that count?
John: I don’t even know if he did that. Man. It was literally like everything.
This is 10 years ago too. But this, he was ahead of the times with like DoorDash and stuff, but I guess that didn’t exist. But it was some equivalent where I think he lived in some city, so he would just eat it like random bistros and stuff. And funny, if you can make that work, I think the meal planning team at Legion has done some stuff on re.
Mike: Based meal plans, it’s more difficult. Yeah it’s much more difficult, Al probably almost impossible because you’re probably not eating alone and there’s just no way that you’re not gonna be trying the appetizers and the desserts and everything else that people are, you’re not gonna sit there and just eat your little salad that you ask them to, put the dressing on the side and.
Don’t use any oil on the chicken
John: And it starts to feel like a waste of time. You’re like, Why am I even, I could make something that’s more fresh, more satiating, cheaper, healthier at home, than this like weird pseudo healthy thing that I’m trying to put together at Chipotle or whatever.
I remember I went to Was it like a mod pizza? Terrible.
Mike: I had it once and I was like, I’m never eating this again. It’s the ha, the halo top of pizza. .
John: Yeah. And I was trying to make like a healthy version too, so it was even worse. And it was like, basically I was like, pizza dough with some sauce and chicken and like spinach on top.
Mike: It was pretty bad mod. It didn’t taste like pizza. It tasted like each individual ingredient combined together. , it wasn’t pizza, It was like a. With some tomato sauce and some cheese, but it didn’t come together.
John: It didn’t like actually taste like pizza. Yeah. Yeah. It wasn’t that good. But yeah, I think that’s again, going back to the consistency element, it’s very difficult as you said, and I think it’s also very unsatisfying because if you really are trying to get in much better shape, like even losing 20 pounds, it’s, it’s not easy for most people.
If you’re really trying to get there, you’re just making it much harder than it really needs to be. And you’re also second guessing yourself Ah, did I eat a bit too much pizza? Eh, should I have that second slice? I don’t know. Whereas if you’re just following a meal plan or eating consistently, like we’re talking about, you could say like a mental meal plan, you just don’t have that.
Overhead of thinking about it. You’re like, All right, I know roughly every week my weight’s going down. And that’s a very nice feeling to have. It’s almost like when you automate investing for finance, right? You have a little bit, comes outta the paycheck, goes into the stanks or whatever your, know, savings account, whatever, and you just know, and then, six months go by and you’re like, Oh, I have a nice little nest egg.
Same idea. Like six months go by following a meal plan. You look in the mirror and you’re. Nice. Actually. Pretty good.
Mike: Yeah. And then final comment is if you can get to the point that we’re talking about where you can enjoyably eat the same types of foods, the same amounts with little changes here and there, and that allows you to.
Achieve your body composition goal, whatever that is. It’s particularly good for maintaining, but if then you go from and I’ve done this a number of times now over the years, where I want to cut, I want to get leaner for whatever reason. You had mentioned this earlier, you had commented, but I just wanna, I wanna point it up because it’s just something for people to think with that cutting.
Becomes as simple as, Okay I’ll remove the rice from my vegetable slop and maybe I’ll eat one fewer piece of fruit. So I normally do a banana and an apple and some blueberries. I’ll just maybe cut the apple or cut the banana and that might actually be enough. That might be like a few hundred calories right there.
John: Yeah. It’s do that and then exercise a little bit more and it’s like, all right, there’s, that’s your cutting. That’s it.
Mike: That’s my cut. I remember years ago in the Florida office I had cut for I think some photo shoot or something like that and got pretty lean, and the joke in the office was literally all I did was I stopped eating an English muffin with peanut butter and jelly on it.
That was it. That was my cut. Like, All right, just take that out, because that was five or 600 calories or whatever, and everything else was the same. And it sounds silly, but of course a calorie deficit, a calorie is a calorie deficit. And if the rest of your diet is not changing, then you can do stuff like that.
John: And that’s the important caveat to keep in mind with the strategy. And again, why I think there’s that balance between consistency and precision where the more you rely on one, the less you need the other. And I guess it comes down to temperament too. Some people do like the tracking. I don’t think, I haven’t met anyone who really likes the meticulous tracking long term, like I mentioned earlier.
But with something like you’re saying, if you look at a lot of the research on, why calorie counting doesn’t work, things like that, and you see these articles pop up every few months or why exercise doesn’t work, that’s a better example, right? Where it’s always you burn your 200 calories and then you just eat ’em back at dinner and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
It’s like, all right, but if you’re serious about doing this, you don’t do. Like you’re following something of a plan. You are eating consistently. And so you aren’t just yeah, okay. You go on an hour bike ride, you burn 500, 600 calories. You aren’t just eating that extra English muffin if get butter and jelly and like patting yourself on the back thinking you’re gonna make progress.
Mike: That’s a slightly different topic. Yeah. It’s a very, it’s a very disingenuous criticism actually. Like some of these articles, you’re like, Okay, this person is. Dumb. Like they’re really stupid and they just don’t get it. Or they’re just disingenuous and they don’t care. And it just, it
John: makes for it’s cynical click bait in many times.
Mike: Exactly. A click bait article that will get shared around.
John: Yeah. And Contrarianism always is a good way to get clicks and that’s, Oh, exercise doesn’t actually work. It’s Okay. Alright. To France, cyclist burns, 8,000 calories a day. Still skinny as a rail . Yeah, they’re just, Also,
Mike: Like everybody who’s in really good shape, they exercise a lot.
John: Yeah. I don’t know, it works out a fair amount. Yeah. Yeah. You just start coming up with simple examples, and again, it’s just, it is a math equation. Wait, you exercise, but that doesn’t work. I, you know this, the science said,
Mike: Yeah. Wait. You exercise and you control your calories.
John: That can’t be yeah.
It’s such a, The, that whole exercise doesn’t work. Again, this is like a slightly different topic, but it does tie in what we’ve been discussing is as dumb as saying saving doesn’t work if you just spend, if you spend it, once a month also oh, you do a good job saving money throughout the month and then you go on a giant shopping free once the month.
Once a month, and you’re surprised that you’re in debt. Yeah, that’s how it works, man. So it’s the same idea. Yeah, as you said, it’s very disingenuous, but it, yeah, again, it comes back to the consistency element. And if you can nail that and you can, really, And also this is another point too, and I have, I’ve had this discussion, right?
We’ve all had friends, we’ve tried to get in good shape and they always have these excuses. In some cases they’re more valid than not. But ultimately it does come back to justifiers for behavior that they don’t wanna change. And one of ’em for a meal plan is, Oh, I just don’t wanna, I don’t, I don’t like being bored like that.
I like to enjoy my food. It’s Write down everything you ate for the last week. I guarantee you it is not as variable as you think it is. And that’s almost always the case, right? Where somebody’s, Oh, I don’t wanna be tied to a meal plan, then make three of ’em, make five of ’em. I don’t care. Make 30 of them.
Or just take one.
Mike: And, okay, so what is it? Is it your dinner? Make five options. And you can choose from any of
John: them. Yeah, exactly. You can make it work if you want to. Is the takeaway there? Often
Mike: the problem is not so much variability, it’s what they’re actually eating. It’s. All right. Yeah. You can’t just eat like hot dogs and hamburgers and, drink a bunch of beer every day and you’re gonna have to make some compromises and that, that’s usually where the problem is.
Yeah. I think that’s everything, right? I That’s everything that,
John: I think we beat this horse.
Mike: No. A bloody pulp. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. This was fun. I look forward to the next one, and thanks for taking the. Yeah. Yeah. Cool. I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful. And if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes.
And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you. And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share.
Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f or life.com and let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future. I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.