I've never been a fan of one-size-fits-all recommendations when it comes to fitness and nutrition. All of us have different body types, metabolic rates, and lifestyle stressors. So, to say that there are universal ways of doing business feels frustratingly simple to recommend.
But, there are habits that are shared by those who are able to stay consistently lean throughout the course of the year, or seem to tighten up overnight when they need to. Leanness in this instance is defined as single digit body fat for men, and mid-teens for women.
A diet, in essence, is a series of behaviors that over the course of time become habits that lead to change. The behaviors become non-negotiable; like brushing your teeth or washing your hands (God I hope everyone feels the same).
Habits are developed with good intentions of reaching a destination just as often as they are formed mindlessly with no thought beyond the moment. It just depends on the individual.
"Start with the End in Mind" - Stephen R. Covey - 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Covey set the standard years ago for go-to handbooks for becoming a more effective, successful, and powerful individual. His seven standards find themselves in the hands of high school English students (as it did me) and budding CEO's alike. He understood that habits are even more important than intentions.
Starting with the end in mind in terms of your dietary habits is critical to seeing success in the long run!
Establishing a series of behaviors as standard operating procedure is a great way to hardwire healthy habits into your brain, and aid in overcoming many of the short term temptations and challenges that will present themselves over the course of becoming, or staying, lean.
Enough chatter though...here are the habits...
Habit 1 - Food Preparation
Taking the time to adequately grocery shop, prepare meals, and store them is probably the most integral habit when it comes to remaining lean. Taking the time to exert complete control over the food (fuel) that you put into your body is the surest way that you consume everything you should and nothing that you shouldn't.
If you allow yourself to wait until your hungry to start DECIDING what you are going to eat for lunch or dinner, then you will often find yourself bloated with guilt and cheese as you finish the last slice of pizza, bite of cheeseburger, or mega-burrito that you grabbed from the place down the block.
Be honest with your life. What meal do you struggle with the most? Make sure you prepare healthier options such as chicken breast and broccoli to fuel you when you normally fall victim to hanger cravings.
Habit 2 - Bed Time/Waking Time
Randomly staying up until 3AM crushing a Netflix binge and sleeping until noon is a sure-fire way to upset your body's homeostasis (see: desire to be balanced). The same goes for partying into the wee hours of the morning and stumbling your way through the following day yearning for fatty foods and sweets.
That's obvious though.
What isn't obvious; however, is the subtle deviations that we, as adults, will place into our schedules when allowed to do so. The most common change will be staying up and sleeping in on weekends. While this may seem normal it can critically disrupt your body's patterns that make eating healthy and maintaining high energy in the following week harder.
I recommend deviating no more than one to two hours from your standard bed time when you are enjoying your weekend. We all want to enjoy social lives and relax after a long week of work, and so this is an understandable admission.
Non-negotiable, however; will be your waking time. Try to wake at the same time you normally do during the week and begin your day. Your body has adjusted its hunger signals, hormone releases, and metabolic processes to reflect waking at a standardized time. Suddenly disturbing this pattern will not only have an effect on your day, but also in the days that follow as your body fights to establish regularity.
If you find yourself struggling to stay awake on a Sunday that followed a late night, then take the time to settle in for a twenty minute power nap. Studies have shown that a twenty minute nap can have greater effects than even that big cup of coffee you are dreaming about - (Although, today is National Coffee Day and so it is understood if you find yourself halfway down a free mocha chokea coffee latte frappa dappa chino).....
(I don't drink coffee so I have no idea what you'd order. I tend to prefer Spike when I need to be smacked in the face by the caffeine monster).
Simply put, aim to maintain your regular schedule as frequently as possible. Life happens and people with six-pack abs party too. It's just crucial to establish a "home-base" that allows your hormones to settle into a beneficial routine!
Habit 3 - Fruits and Vegetables before other carbohydrates
Quick...you find yourself hungry during the day, haven't prepared anything and need lunch or a snack to get you through your rut. What do you grab?
A sandwich from down the block?
Coffee and a muffin from your local coffee shop?
Candy, cookies, chips, and other processed poo?
Carrots and broccoli, an apple or grapes?
Honestly answering this question will allow you to realize one of the primary flaws in the modern American diet. That is the overconsumption of processed and refined grain products.
Now, I'm not saying that avoiding grains and going gluten-free is the smooth move at all. In fact, some other smart science-folk have discovered that -
A. Most people are NOT sensitive to gluten
B. Grains can be very useful source of carbohydrates in a fit person's diet
C. Our ancestors likely ate grains, albeit not the crumbs from the bottom of a damn Doritoes bag
It is important though to focus on consuming vegetables and fruits prior to reaching for the grains. Why?
Vegetables and fruits have a diverse amount of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidant properties in them that aid in the metabolic and hormonal processes in the body.
It isn't all calories in/ calories out. The quality of your food, as measured by nutrient density, is one of the most critical aspects of dietary success. Basing your carbohydrate consumption around consuming eight to ten servings of vegetables, and one to two servings of fruit per day will get your close to your needed calories, while also boosting in the intake of critical nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, and calcium.
Oh, and be diverse. Divide your intended amount servings by 2...and that is how many different sources you should have. (Ex. 8 servings of vegetables from 4 different sources).
Habit 4 - Always Having Water
Some of the leanest people I have known in my life are never without water by their side. Every session rendered, every meeting, every workout, at their feet during every movie, and even between every drink when they do go out!
Consuming pure water should be a no brainer now-a-days. Yet, the amount of people I've come across who "hate the taste of water" and consume tea, soda, coffee, and alcohol every day would surprise you.
Water can flush the system of toxins, lubricate joints and muscle tissue, and even boost brain function and alertness! In fact, your creaky, achy joints and sore, tight muscles may only need water.
Furthermore, drinking about sixteen ounces of lemon water to start the day has shown to better jumpstart the metabolism and lead to better energy throughout.
Hunger Cravings? Try water
Tired? Try water.
Do not get me started on bouyancy of that Damn door
Habit 5 - Cheat Meals on Hard Days
Just because you work out hard and have a fit body doesn't mean that you don't occasionally find yourself deep into a pizza, or thirty wings and four beers deep during a football game.
They are moments, and not habit...
But most importantly...they are earned. Not just by a quick jog or thirty push ups during pre-game shows...but an ass-kicking workout that makes the body need nutrients.
NOW, it is critical to know that I am not saying that one should look at exercise as a way to justify a food. In fact, that behavior and way of thinking is dangerous due its ability to easily lead into eating disorders and distorted body images.
WHAT I AM SAYING...Is that people who stay very lean don't have a lot of "F-it" days where they roll around lazy and consume calories relentlessly without looking for a means to use them.
Working out hard, such as heavy deadlifts and squats, prior to a big cheat meal can lead to the body better optimizing and utilizing the carbohydrates and fats that will be consumed in excess. Damaged muscle tissues, sore joints, and empty glycogen stores can be repleted adequately.
Consuming that massive cheat meal and THEN going to the gym you ask? Well, just wear your favorite tight T-shirt and be ready for the greatest pump of all time. Your body will be well-stocked with quick-absorbing nutrients that will make your biceps feel like they've been filled with concrete.
Again, exercise should never justify one's choice to consume an unhealthy food. Exercise is just exercise. However, learning to harness the power of the calorie bomb will only lead to better muscles, and probably, better fat loss.
Habit 6 - Train With Purpose
Going to the gym is better than sitting on your couch with one hand in your pants and another buried in a bag of chips. Doing an hour an elliptical is still better than your local happy hour. Yet, if you want to be really lean...
Than you need to train with the intent to destroy the gym. There needs to be heavy lifting, lighter lifting, medium lifting, medium-heavy lifting, and light-medium lifting. There should be sprints and stairs, long runs, and sled drags. Even yoga and bodyweight training can have its place.
There are certain facts about human anatomy and physiology that at this point cannot be disputed. Muscles give the body strength and shape, bone provides leverage and structure, and fat serves as a source of fuel and protection. Muscle also burns more calories than fat, and fat softens the appearance of the human shape.
Training to be lean than, regardless of age, gender, time-of-day, or favorite Taylor Swift song should be centered building strong muscles and bones that provide strength, stability, and shape to the body. Furthermore, it should be centered around maximizing lipolysis, or fat-burning, as to enhance the human physique by revealing the hard-earned muscle tissue.
Set specific, measureable goals and circle an end date on your schedule. Don't cheat yourself and treat every workout like it matters, because guess what...it does! There isn't room for too tired, or too busy when you want to become exceptionally lean.
Purpose is as purpose does, and words forever hollow when there is no action to drive them.
Establishing habits that become the backbone of how you exist are critical to navigating a world filled with cravings and temptations. Think of being lean as a highway. Your goal here is to get on and stay on; even if there is an exit every mile.