As mentioned in my previous article, nutrition is the base of our fitness pyramid upon which all other things rest. No more Cheetos and Monsters for you, buddy. And no more chow hall ladies serving you hamsters and pizza. Even with limited exercise, a good diet can keep you healthy and somewhat fit. We’ve all heard of fad and corporate diets like Atkins and Weight Watchers. You may have even heard of some the newer ones like the Keto diet and Paleo. This article will explain a few of these options. First, however I will explain general terms.
Calories are the units of food energy which one ingests and burns throughout the day. Your caloric intake should be your body weight multiplied by about 12-15 depending on how active you are, age, and activity level.
Macronutrients (Macros) are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Protein has 4 calories per gram. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and fats have about 9 calories per gram.
IIFYM – If It Fits Your Macros
In this diet, we calculate both the calories and the macronutrients [i] (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) that should make up those calories. The average recommended ratio should be 30% of your calories from protein (lean meats and fish), 40% from fibrous carbohydrates (think green leafy vegetables, some fruits, whole grains and moderate amounts of starchy carbs such as potatoes, rice, and pasta), and 30% from fats (good fats include monounsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil).
With this diet, you can eat whatever you want (within reason) as long as the ratios and calories fit within your target. This allows some flexible dieting options that allow you to sneak in a burger or pizza a few times a week without destroying progress. The key to this diet is to track EVERYTHING you put into you mouth in your logbook book or on apps like My Fitness Pal which make scanning your food labels and barcodes easy. Using a food scale to weigh your ingredients is also an essential tool for this diet. Once you get started, you can play with your ratios to find what your body best responds to. For example, my diet is more like 40% protein, 30% carbs, 30% fat because I’m working to build more muscle.
The Zone Diet is quite similar, using blocks of macronutrients for you to move around on a diet calendar. 7 grams of protein is one block, 9 grams of carbs is one block, and 1.5 grams of fat is one block with average males eating 14 blocks per day and females eating 11. You can calculate yours here.[ii]
The idea behind this diet is to eat like Paleolithic man.[iii] Early man did not have any processed foods, which are highly calorically dense. According to this diet’s theory, called the discordance hypothesis, farming was a late development for humans and sped up our eating habits to faster than our bodies could naturally fully adapt to. By eliminating this kind of food, you can eat more and feel full with fewer calories and more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
It focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean meats, fish and oils. It avoids grains, beans, dairy, sugar, potatoes, excess salt, and any processed foods.
The benefits include weight loss and a highly structured diet that makes it difficult to overindulge. Cons are that it is hard to sustain due to limited options when out at restaurants or in social situations. Cravings outside the diet are also a problem but can be managed with moderation.
Keto Diet vs Atkins Diet
Both of these diets are low carb diets. The purpose is to eliminate calories from carbohydrates which are much slower burning and force the body to start burning stored fat instead, a state called ketosis. The difference in the two diets is in the long-term treatment of carbs.[iv]
The Keto diet limits your protein to only about 20% of your calories and means to eliminate carbs almost entirely (5-10%) with the rest (70%) coming from fats like nuts and avocados, butter and animal fats. This is a lifetime goal meant to be sustained.
The Atkins diet places no cap on protein intake and works in phases. In the first phase, you limit carbs to only 20%. After a few weeks, you begin to reintroduce carbs gradually and monitor progress to determine your long terms carb balance and then maintain those ratios.
Both diets are simply restricting calories by eliminating a food group. It has proven highly beneficial for people with epilepsy in reducing seizures. Some negative side effects include fatigue, dizziness, increased risk of kidney stones and heart disease, nausea, and chronic bad breath.
This is less of a diet and more of an eating pattern.[v] The idea is that you simply don’t eat for about 14-16 hours and have an eight-hour window during which you can eat and snack. So, if you have dinner at 7pm, you won’t eat gain until around noon the next day. The diet usually calls on black coffee to curb hunger in the morning, as it works as an appetite suppressant. Other versions of this have people fasting 24 hours twice a week on non-consecutive days. A person would have dinner and not eat again until dinner the next day, sipping coffee and water throughout the day.
Within this “diet” you can be fairly flexible with what you eat as it creates a caloric deficit through time restriction. It’s harder to eat 3,000 calories in eight hours. Benefits of fasting in studies have shown increase in Human Growth Hormone (HGH) as much as five-fold, which leads to building more lean muscle which, in turn, burns more fat. Also, insulin sensitivity improves, and levels drop making stored body fat more accessible.
Combining a zone diet or IIFYM diet with an intermittent fasting pattern allows you to eat bigger meals twice a day, reduces food prep time, and allows greater flexibility to enjoy occasional “junk food” and alcohol. The rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule. Eat clean about 80% of the time and you can eat fun foods the other 20%.
How Does Alcohol Fit In?
If you’re like me (and a lot of other vets) you like to drink. Alcohol can fit into any of these diets but, like all good things, should be enjoyed in MODERATION (a word many of us don’t seem to understand). Excess alcohol makes it very difficult to burn fat as your body treats it like a foreign invader and burns it off before it ever gets to your carbs and fats. When you get hammered, you’re basically doubling the amount of work you have to do to burn fat. Your body is also slower to build and repair muscle when it’s putting its efforts into dealing with the booze. Fitting the calories into your daily intake is fine, but don’t starve yourself so you can get wasted. Don’t be the guy the gets drunk and then craves fast food at midnight. [vi]
A good rule of thumb is to stick to clear liquor with no sweeteners or juices added (use seltzer and lime for mixers) and have about three to four standard drinks during a night of drinking. As you get fitter, you might find your tolerance lowers and that becomes more than enough to have a great time. Plus, you’ll spend less money, which is always a plus. Just be sure you are hydrating. Maybe change your socks.
Chris Walker is a Marine Artillery Officer and JTAC who served eight years on active duty, deploying to Afghanistan and on two Marine Expeditionary Units with infantry, ANGLICO, and Force Reconnaissance units. He is still serving in the reserves, lives in New York, and recently founded the military-themed apparel company BootSOC.