Good food is one of life’s best pleasures. But so is being fit and lean. You don’t have to choose one or the other, though—you can eat anything and burn fat (or stay lean, or build muscle). Any healthy person can do it, and there are no exotic supplements, drugs, or extreme exercise regimes needed. Here’s how you can have your donuts and eat them too.
Most people think eating decadent food will lead to fatness. It seems like there just has to be a horrible price for the best-tasting, most hedonic food.
It makes sense considering we’re raised to believe there are no free lunches, and what goes around comes around. Therefore, there are three generally accepted options. The first is that we can be born one of those lucky people who can eat cheesecake all day long and stay lean. Obviously this is rare and out of our hands anyway.
Beyond that, the choice for most people seems to be between either eating dessert and getting fat, or permanently eating dry chicken breast and broccoli to be lean and healthy.
Everywhere you look there are people who seem to prove this. Either consciously or not they elect to indulge, and get extremely fat as a result.
I remember having a sauna after working out once. I was discussing diet with a guy in there, and I’d just told him about some of the foods I regularly eat. He jealously let me know that I made him sick (bit of a conversation killer!) because as we sat there his belly rolls were resting on his thighs while mine were more wrinkles. He assumed I was one of those people with extreme genetic blessings, all the while I was picturing the time my own belly would have dwarfed his own. No genetic blessings here, good sir!
I tried to explain, but it was a waste of time—he just couldn’t get past his preconceptions. I wasn’t surprised though, it took me over a decade to get over my own mistaken beliefs.
What Really Makes Us Fat
Whether we gain, lose, or maintain weight is determined by energy balance.
When we take in more energy through food than we require to stay alive, fuel activity, and maintain current fat stores, we gain weight. Conversely, when the energy our bodies receive is less than required to stay alive, fuel activity, and maintain current fat stores, we lose weight.
Body weight is that simple. (Body composition—ie, the ratio of fat to lean mass such as muscle—is related, but slightly different. Control of it can be maximized with exercise.)
In summary, when we eat too much we get fat.
Well, that’s a bit anti-climatic, isn’t it? Not exactly a revelation.
Composition vs Quantity
It is widely known that eating too much makes people fat. However, that doesn’t mean that there are fattening foods. If you eat a sufficient quantity of any food you get fat, and food choice has little effect on our ability to lose weight. I say little effect because foods do have different effects in the body, some take more energy to digest for instance. But these differences tend to wash out, and by far the most important dietary factor for manipulating weight is overall energy intake.
So what you eat and how much you eat are distinct concepts. People fail to recognize the difference, and that’s why it’s common to hear references to “bad” and “naughty” foods.
You might be thinking there’s no practical difference here: if a food is very calorically dense (ie, contains a lot of energy for a given portion size), you might as well call it fattening because it’s so easy to overeat. Clearly it’s a lot easier to get fat by consistently eating an extra slice of pizza than an extra two pounds of vegetables.
So what are we foodies to do? Are we back to square one, and the choice between having our chocolate and being fat or eating lettuce leaves forever to stay lean or lose weight? Thankfully not.
The Fit Foodie’s Tools
- Energy intake goal.
- Meal Frequency and size.
Simple, huh? It’s deceptive though—these things are extremely powerful.
Whether the goal is weight loss, muscle gain, or body weight maintenance, we need to know how much food energy to take in. Determining this value is beyond the scope of this article, but Andy Morgan has a great write up on the subject.
Within the framework of a caloric goal, meal frequency and size allow great flexibility.
Consider what goes into the most enjoyable eating experience. First you need some delicious food, and second you need to eat a satisfying amount.
However, the most delicious and indulgent food tends to be energy dense. Therein lies the problem—you must remain within your caloric limits to achieve your body composition goals, and if you’re trying to burn off body fat, you’re especially limited in how much overall food you can consume.
One way to do it would be to cut portion size. But half the fun is eating a sufficient quantity, whatever that means to you, so undermining the experience with a mere taste defeats the point (and is really frustrating).
Therefore we turn to manipulation of meal frequency and size. Remember that successful body composition control hinges on overall energy balance. This means that meal size and frequency can be played with and tweaked with minimal impact on fitness goals.
The Supreme Power of Not Eating
The fit foodie’s best friend is not eating. As odd as this sounds, by eating less we can eat more.
Your daily calories are a kind of budget, and by not eating at various points throughout the day or week—or eating smaller amounts—you can bank calories to spend later. Want that 500 Calorie slice of cheesecake for lunch? Either eat a small breakfast, or skip breakfast entirely.
500 Calories of cheesecake at lunchtime didn’t quite hit the spot? No problem, give lunch the same treatment, and eat 1000 Calories of cheesecake for dessert.
There are various ways of splitting up your intake, and your own preferences and some experimentation will reveal what’s right for you. The most extreme way to do it would be to eat only one meal a day.
What I Do
I’m someone who gets hungry in the evening. Following the old advice of a large breakfast, moderate lunch, and small dinner is horrible. It means I spend the whole night feeling ravenous and battling cravings.
Therefore I eat 3 meals per day, with breakfast being mid-afternoon. My first two meals are small and of low caloric density food—typically some protein, and a lot of vegetables. My last meal is far bigger, and normally includes some type of horrendously rich, high-calorie dessert.
I eat this way regardless of whether I’m on low calories and cutting body fat, or eating more when aiming for muscle growth.
If you elect to skip meals entirely, you need to know that it can take some getting used to. Just extending the time before breakfast is a good way to start, and you can progressively build up from there. If you jump straight into it, it could feel quite rough.
Also, I understand that skipping meals can lead to issues for people with a history of eating disorders (beyond my expertise, but proceed with caution).
Theoretically you could eat only very high-calorie indulgent food and still maintain a very lean state. However, health is an important consideration—it’s wise to make sure you’re covering your nutritional bases as well as your foodie-ism.
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too: Eat Anything and Burn Fat
It’s said that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. However, putting the simple concepts outlined here into practice really feels like ultimate disproof of that—you can be fit and lean and explore all the joy your taste buds can provide. People claim all sorts of things as being life hacks, but this feels like a real one.
“Cheat clean” with artificial cardboard copies of real food? No thanks, I’d rather cheat common wisdom. Why restrict yourself to mere imitations of good food—you can eat anything and burn fat.
Have your own experience or any questions? Please comment below!