Natty Lifter's Guide to Nutrition: Build Quality Gainz w/out Steroids

In this four part series, we break down everything natural lifters should know about building muscle without steroids. Part 3 covers diet and nutrition!

Quick, do you have a pen and paper handy?

If not, jot this down in a note on your iPhone.

I’m about to give you a simple 3 step system which will turn you into a world-renowned nutritionist seemingly overnight.

  • Step 1: Calculate Your Total Calorie Needs
  • Step 2: Determine Your Macros
    • Protein: 0.8-1g/lb
    • Fat: 0.4-0.5g/lb
    • Carbs: Fill in remaining calories after fat and protein minimums are met to support calorie needs.
  • Step 3: Plan Your Diet
    • Determine specific meals you enjoy eating which fit allotted macronutrient and calorie goals.
    • Determine specific amounts of food you’ll need for all your weekly meals.
    • Shop, Cook, Eat, Repeat.

Little bit of math, some minor planning, an account on MyFitnessPal…boom, next thing you know, you’re an Instagram sensation marketing your “wealth of knowledge” with generic infographics.

It’s not really all that complicated. But, you probably knew all of that because you already read my expert guide on muscle growth.

Everyone is talking about IIFYM, calorie calculators, and keto. I’m bored with the basics, let’s get into something applicable which dives beneath the surface.

In the words of my mentor Dr. Ben House, “Some people just want the Kool-Aid, other people want the recipe for the Kool-Aid.”

I’m here to give you both.

Table full of Veggies and Micronutrients

1. Food Quality and Quantity Are Usually Inversely Proportional

IIFYM sounds cool and all, but what do you do if someone doesn’t want to track calories for the rest of their life? Do you really want to be using a food scale when you’re 40, married with 2 kids and a dog?

Those who choose to ignore this principle often overlook additional nutritional factors like food allergies/intolerances, short and long term satiety, neurological reward (aka dopamine response), palatability (taste, smell, texture, etc.), and metabolic (in)flexibility.

If the diet has a variety of hyperpalatable, calorie-dense, low satiety foods, it is highly likely that tracking calories will be necessary to maintain a caloric deficit (or calorie balance if maintenance is the goal) or at the very least, diligent, conscious portion control.

Related: 6 Things About Fat Loss You Don't Want to Hear

IIFYM doesn’t teach an individual to take note of their individual response to food (satiety, digestion, energy, focus, mental acuity, etc.) it promotes the idea that numbers rule progression.

While this may be true, if someone hates the process and the numbers are moving in the right direction, are we really making progress? Or, are we just promoting a poor lifestyle which is only marginally sustainable until the individual can’t mentally accept that the pros outweigh the cons (cue the pizza and donuts as soon as someone loses 10lbs)?

2. Prepare Most of Your Meals with Whole Foods (aka Eat Like an Adult)

I like how all these meal prep services market their “system” as some sort of super-secret nutritional hierarchy. Want to know the secret? Get people to eat real, whole foods in realistic quantities while being aware of their consumption. Know what that sounds like? Rational, sound nutritional principles.

Go look at most of these corporations on Instagram - you’ll find tons of over edited photos featuring meat, veggies, and whole food starches (rice, potatoes, pasta, fruit, etc.). Guess what? Those things all work because they take care of the factors we discussed above (satiety, micronutrients, caloric density, palatability, food reward, etc.).

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” - Hippocrates

You may have slammed a box of cocoa puffs and chugged a vitamin water but that doesn’t mean you’ve met your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of micronutrients. Taking responsibility for your health means being accountable for what you consume.

Take an hour or two each week to cook your own food and eat like an adult. Meal prep may seem hard to most unless they have a proven system - I’ve broken down my foolproof template in this article which should help drastically: How to Make Meal Prep Sunday an Easy Habit.

Natural Lifter Meal Prep

3. Body Composition is Not an Accurate Indicator of Health

Have you heard about the nutrition professor who lost 27lbs eating only Twinkies? What about the high school science teacher who lost more than 60lbs eating only McDonalds?

Apparently, you can have your cake and eat it too according to those who subscribe to the IIFYM ideology. However, we must be very careful in assuming that “all macros are created equal”. For example, trans fat are usually lumped into “total fat” on nutrition labels but their metabolic impacts are much greater than poly or monounsaturated versions.1,2

Be careful in simplifying nutrition to just data, equations, and algorithms. Nutritional biochemistry is incredibly complex and human physiology is often unpredictable.

If someone is following a diet of whatever they want, provided “it fits their macros” but has never had blood work done, it is very tough to objectively measure their current health status, regardless of how many abs they have.

Priorities: Principles or Preworkouts?

Nutrition is cool and all, but most people care more about supplements and body composition than micronutrients and health. Everybody wants to get jacked up on 3 scoops of preworkout and film motivational videos for the ‘gram. #sunsoutgunsout

Before you even consider supplementation, these 11 foundational properties should be in place (this is ideally non-negotiable).

  • You should have an adequate grasp on your total daily calories and protein intake.
  • You should consume a wide variety of whole foods within your diet.
  • You should consume a decent protein bolus of 20-35g with each feeding (0.18-0.23g/lb).
  • You should sleep a minimum of 7.5-8hrs (or more) nightly.
  • You should consume premium cuts of red meat 2-3 times per week.
  • You should consume foods rich in potassium and lightly salt your meals (if eating bland foods) to ensure adequate electrolyte balance.
  • You should consume 4-6oz of wild caught fatty fish 2-3 times per week.
  • You should go to bed before 11pm.
  • You should consume (at least) 7-10 servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
  • You should ensure 20-30 minutes of direct sun exposure daily.
  • You should consume 2-3 whole eggs daily.

Food Quality Matters

Fundamentals Before Supplementals

Now, do folks add supplementation before they have established the above criteria? Of course, people try to out supplement poor lifestyle and nutrition choices all the time.

  • Lacking omega 3’s in your diet? Toss back half a bottle of fish oil.
  • Sleeping poorly? Time to slam 15 milligrams of melatonin and go comatose.
  • Can’t seem to wake up in the morning? Better crush a 5-hour energy and chew a whole pack of caffeinated gum until your adrenal glands self-implode.

I get it. Some people don’t like salmon. Others are allergic to eggs or gag at the sight of broccoli. I’m not saying there is a problem with supplementation. On the contrary, I use and recommend supplementation. But, my point is, we must hammer home the basics first before we become consumed with the minutia.

Related: Paralysis by Analysis - 10 Reasons You're Not Making Gains

If you can’t check off the 11 recommendations from the list above, you don’t need to blow $50 bucks on the latest and greatest preworkout guaranteed to unleash a jackhammer on your sympathetic nervous system and push you into ventricular tachycardia.

Pick the lowest hanging fruit first. Focusing on L-carnitine supplementation to push a few extra triglycerides into the Krebs cycle without considering your total daily calorie intake is like worrying about mowing the lawn while your house is on fire.

Fundamentals first and foremost.