Before I get into this, a quick preface. This is an outline for nutrition for fat-loss. However, it also serves as the foundation of a good diet, whatever your goal. I believe that for most people, this way of eating will support health, longevity and performance to a large degree. The rest is just detail. Whether you are after performance, health or just weight-maintenance, you can use this structure as the base for your nutritional strategy. Slight adjustments can then be made to accommodate your specific situation.
Are abs made in the kitchen?
You should also know that nutrition is not the only variable involved in fat-loss. We are continually told that ‘abs are made in the kitchen’. That’s nonsense. Nutrition is critical but so are other factors, particularly movement, sleep and stress-management.
By movement, I don’t just mean training; I mean activity outside training too: walking, sports, recreation. You should train 3-5 times per week at high intensity and you should move EVERY day at lower intensities. Low intensity activity like walking will have a surprisingly substantial effect on your overall energy balance, metabolism and regulation of blood glucose etc. 10,000 steps a day is possible for everyone and will help you more than you think. Take every opportunity to be active: try new sports, do a yoga class, take a ball to the park with friends and mess around. Sitting is killing you and it’s keeping you fat too.
If you’re regularly sleeping less than 7 hours per night, you’ll find it exceptionally hard to lose weight. Why? The science is clear on this: sleep deprivation, even moderate deprivation, causes you to eat somewhere between 300-600 extra calories per day (see this study)! Not just that: these extra calories will likely come from poor food choices as studies show that tired people eat more processed food than the well rested. Lack of sleep causes insulin resistance (references: 1, 2), making you essentially pre-diabetic and unable to regulate blood glucose effectively, shunting more of your fuel into fat and making you ever hungrier.
For a lot of people this is the missing link. Sleep at least 7 hours a night, absolute MINIMUM. Ideally, I’d prefer you slept 8 hours. And make sure the quality is high: sleep in a cool, dark room and limit caffeine past midday (the average half-life of caffeine is 5-7 hours. So that coffee you have at 3pm? Half of it may still be coursing through your system when you go to bed at 10pm, keeping you alert and awake!)
Stress is also a significant factor in weight-loss. Too much stress chronically raises your cortisol levels. This will lower your immune function and cause you to get ill more frequently. Getting sick is not optimal for weight-loss, by the way. Cortisol inhibits protein synthesis and may increase proteolysis in which the body breaks down muscle protein to use as fuel. Together these two effects may lead to poor recovery, lower muscle mass and, as a result, lower metabolic rate, making fat-loss much more challenging. An overly stressed body is a body that will hang on to energy reserves. It’s super important that you counteract this with meditation, yoga or other stress-management activities.
With all that being said, let’s move on to look at nutrition. The below is the way I eat and is based on about a decade of experience, fine-tuning and experimenting with different approaches. I’ve seen what works for me and I’ve seen what works for clients and members and this is my best attempt at consolidating all of that data.
The 3 Ps
In order to know how to eat, you need to understand nutrition on 3 separate levels, which I call the “3 Ps”
In order to stick with a nutrition plan, you need to understand the theory and thinking behind it. If I just tell you to eat x and say nothing about why, you’ll struggle to find the motivation to stay compliant. We always need “the why”. The Principles lay out the why of this way of eating.
While the Principles lay things out in an abstract way, the Prescription tells you exactly what you can and can’t eat and how you can combine foods together. The Prescription is your basic “what”.
But that can’t be where we leave things. We all, on some level, know how to eat. It’s the pragmatics of how exactly to execute and stick with a nutrition plan that prevents most people from getting the results they desire. This side of things is covered by the Practicalities which discuss strategies and hacks for eating according to The Prescription.
3 Principles guide my approach to nutrition:
Consistency is king
Keep it simple, stupid (KISS)
Eliminate will power
Consistency is king
The first and most fundamental principle of nutrition is that consistency is king for fat-loss. Always remember that the good diet you can maintain is infinitely better than the perfect diet you can’t.
Results come from stringing together long periods of good quality nutrition and training. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be constant. Sure, you can allow yourself some indulgences here and there but at least 80-90% of the time you need to be on point.
You need to keep yourself accountable and you need to track your adherence. If you’re taking part in the 12 week City Road Summer Health Challenge, then you already have the means for keeping yourself honest. If not, use a tracking spreadsheet (feel free to borrow our template here) or simply track good and bad days in a diary.
Nutritional science is complex and nuanced and there’s a lot of controversy and disagreement about the finer details. But eating for fat-loss is not, and need to be, complex at all. That’s not to say it is easy, because it isn’t; but conceptually, in terms of what you need to do, it’s straightforward. My philosophy is that you should keep it as simple as possible and you do this in 2 ways:
Limit the number of rules you need to follow
Make sure the rules are binary and unambiguous: it should be easy to say whether you stuck to your plan or not.
Overall, when it comes to nutrition for fat-loss, the goal is to create a calorie deficit. I hate to be that guy, but it’s true. It’s not the only thing that matters, of course. It’s critical to design a sustainable nutritional approach so that you can achieve long-term fat-loss and we want to emphasise food quality in order to support health, longevity and performance. But, all that notwithstanding, you can’t lose weight without a deficit; so it needs to be a priority.
But how you create this deficit is the crucial thing. You’ll hear many angry people on Instagram railing against the paleo diet or the ketogenic diet, saying, “all that matters is a calorie deficit”. That’s like saying, “Hey loser. In order to lose weight, all you have to do is create the metabolic conditions for weight-loss. Moron”. Yes, indeed. A = A, but how constructive is that?
In other words, talking about deficits without introducing a clear and effective means of creating that deficit is tautological and a waste of time. Fortunately for us, we can actually create this deficit without paying any attention at all to calories and instead focusing on food quality and meal timing. No MyFitnessPal, no macros. Just simple rules. After all, it should come as no surprise that a diet which supports health naturally encourages a low level of body fat.
Eliminate will power:
A lot of people think losing weight is all about having the discipline of a monk. If your strategy is to rely on will-power, you will lose. We aren’t wired to eat just 1 cube of chocolate and we aren’t wired to eat broccoli when cookies are readily available. We’re wired for times of scarcity and uncertainty; of not knowing when the next meal will come around. Gorging on available calories was a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, it’s a mechanism ill-suited for contemporary times of abundance which have made us fat and unhappy. So instead, I suggest you stack the deck in your favour through planning and organisation in order to steer you clear of unnecessary temptation.
When to eat:
I’ll start with food timing because I think a fasting protocol serves as a useful calorie-reducing heuristic, besides having other powerful effects. I believe fasting has positive effects on digestive and gut health and may up-regulate stress-response pathways that can be protective for health and longevity. Limiting the times at which you can eat is also one of the simplest and most effective mechanisms for creating a caloric deficit.
I tend to use a 10 hour eating window and a 14 hour fasting window and that is where I would suggest you start.
There is some debate over whether fasting during the day or in the evening is better. I think the most important thing is that you fast; not when you fast. Design an eat / fast protocol that works with your lifestyle, work and social / family commitments.
I generally aim to fast between ~8pm and ~10am. If I end up eating dinner a little later, I adjust my fasting window because I find it easier to control when I eat breakfast than when I eat dinner (this may not be the case for you!). So if I end up finishing dinner at 9pm, I’ll fast until 11am the next day. I will also sometimes do longer fasts if I decide to train in the morning or if I have meetings. Once you’ve learned how to fast, a few extra hours without food is no big deal. This will sometimes mean that my eating window is shorter or longer than 10 hours, but my fasting window is always at least 14 hours.
You may find that it’s easier for you to time your eating window, rather than your fasting window. Some people start a clock at their first meal and set an alarm for 10 hours later. All your eating must be completed by this time.
It’s important to bear in mind that during the fasting window NOTHING with any caloric content should be consumed. All you can have is water and black tea or coffee (no milk!). That means no lattes, no protein shakes, no Noccos etc.
Will being fasted affect my training?
Everyone is different and you will need to find what works best for you. BUT, in general, you should be able to train fasted although It may take some getting used to. Look, I realise we aren’t hunter-gatherers any more but do you think our ancestors needed pre-workout carbs before trying to escape a marauding tiger or going on a long hunt? Probably not and you don’t need to be fully fuelled before working out either. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend fasting for long periods of time after training since this may affect recovery. After training, 2-3 hours of additional fasting may work. If it’s much more than this, you may struggle.
That means if you’re training in the evening, you may need to fast in the morning / early afternoon to avoid fasting overnight after you train. If you train early in the morning, you may want to push your fasting window at least partly into the evening hours.
If you are doing double classes or higher volume strength workouts or longer sessions, you may start to see your performance decline and I would recommend being more fully fuelled for these types of sessions. For myself, I find that I can perform normally during 1-1.5 hours of class-like strength and conditioning programming and aerobic work after as much as 14-15 hours of fasting. But higher rep strength stuff or longer sessions start to get hard. Again, results may vary and you may be different. n=1, always.
It’s also worth mentioning that if performance is your number 1 goal and body composition is not a concern, you should probably aim to be well fuelled for all workouts.
How many meals should I have?
Within the eating window, you can eat however you like. You can have as many or as few meals as feels natural to you. You need only eat when you’re hungry and I certainly wouldn’t advise eating just because you think a certain number of meals is optimal.
For most people, 2-3 meals within a 10 hour window will work well. For me, on weekends and rest days I tend to have just 2 large meals, perhaps with some snacking in between. On training days, I’ll normally have 3. But you should give yourself free reign to find what works best for you. Listen to your body. You may find yourself eating fewer but larger meals or you may find that you can tolerate the same number of meals with a shorter break in between. Either one is totally fine.
How much should I eat?
Eat until you’re no longer hungry. Eat again when you feel hungry. Simple! One of the advantages of IF is that you should be able to control your caloric intake simply by restricting your eating periods. Sure, it is possible to eat the same number of calories on IF as you normally would but it’s unlikely to happen without deliberate effort.
What to eat:
Let’s begin with what not to eat… My recommendation is that you avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates and all grains. The last item is somewhat controversial and may get a few ‘if it fits your macros’ bros into a frenzy. Just know that I’m not saying that grains are the devil. What I am saying is that there are better things you could be eating instead. I’m saying that although some grains have value in some contexts, most grains most of the time are of poor quality and contain relatively little micronutrient content. You can do better. I realise that we’ve been eating bread for 10,000 years. But we sure as hell haven’t been eating highly-refined and factory-produced bread like Hovis for 10,000 years…
This is also an example of a simple and effective heuristic for limiting your food intake (and increasing your overall nutritional quality). Most people rely far too heavily on grains and refined carbohydrate and often don’t even realise. Equally, processed carbs frequently go hand in hand with added sugar or fat, which makes for very palatable and incredibly energy-dense food choices. Think pasta with olive oil and cheese, butter on toast, sugary cereals and granolas etc. If you can eat these foods in moderation, you are a far better person than me!
Just to be clear, all of the below foods are, for the time being, out:
Cereal, muesli or granola of any kind
Oats / porridge
Bread and other wheat products
Sugary drinks and sodas
How do you know if a food is processed or not? If it has an ingredients label, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.
Which leads me perfectly on to what you should be eating. CrossFit’s “fitness in 100 words” does a good job at summarising:
“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
Put another way: eat real food; eat whole foods. Eat meat, fish and plants. Or, if you’re vegan, just eat plants!
How to eat:
We’ve covered what you can and can’t include in your diet. But how do you put that together into an actual diet?
I use a template to create all of my meals. It’s a step-by-step meal-creation algorithm. For more detail on the food categories (starch vegetables, high quality protein etc.), see below.
- Every meal starts with a high-quality protein source
- You then add micronutrient rich food: either with non-starchy vegetables or fruit. Ideally you would choose fibrous vegetables but fruit is fine otherwise.
- If you’re limited to fruit, you then add some healthy fats to go with the protein. Then you’re done.
- If you added non-starchy vegetables you have two options:
- Add some starchy vegetables. This option works well if you’re eating a post-workout meal. In this case, you should be moderate with any dressing you add to the vegetables. Then you’re done.
- If you’re foregoing starchy veg, I would add a generous healthy-fat dressing to your veg first. You can then add a little fruit as a dessert too! Then you’re done.
So you have a few options to play with:
- Protein + non-starchy vegetables + starchy vegetables => PVS meal
- Protein + non-starchy vegetables + 2 of: health fat dressing; healthy fats; fruit ⇒ PVX meal
- Protein + fruit + healthy fats ⇒ PFH meal
Here are some examples:
Staying on track: contingency planning and preparation
One of the advantages of this approach is that it’s flexible. It allows you to cook incredible food but it also gives you options when time is tight.
There are two keys to keeping yourself on track when you’re busy: meal hacks and food prep.
There are certain items which you should keep in your kitchen at all times so that you can whip up nutritious food at the drop of a hat and without even cooking: super nutrient dense options that require little or no preparation. These are also items you can buy in any supermarket and use to build a healthy meal on the go. Here is a starter list:
With these simple ingredients you have almost limitless options to create delicious, nutritious and easy meals. Here are just a few of the options:
Eggs: God’s own food
Ok, so you have to cook eggs. But let’s be real for a second: few protein options pack the same nutritional bang for the 5 minute buck it takes you to scramble a few eggs. Eggs are not only a great source of protein, they also provide good fats, lots of vitamin D3, B2 and B12, folate, choline and selenium. Please remember that eggs are also not JUST for breakfast! Oh, and don’t let anyone tell you to worry about the cholesterol in eggs…
High-quality organic ready meals:
There are a few companies out there that provide super high quality ready meals made with organic meats and only whole food ingredients. My current favourite is an outfit called Pegoty Hedge, which I order from Abel & Cole (https://www.abelandcole.co.uk/). I generally have their cottage pie once a week with some sauteed greens. Having one or two of these in the fridge or freezer can be a real life-saver when the pantry is empty or you just don’t fancy cooking. See the cottage pie below:
A quick note too on what NOT to rely on in your kitchen. First of all, I would avoid buying ready-cooked meats like ham or packaged chicken. The meat in these will tend to be of really poor quality and low welfare standards and will be packed with preservatives and artificial flavourings (you should also be careful with the tinned fish and make sure it’s fished sustainably and wild wherever possible).
5-minute mouth-watering veg:
You all know you need to eat vegetables. But what if you don’t like vegetables? In my mind, it is one of the greatest travesties of contemporary times that so few people have been exposed to delicious vegetables! Coming from a Greek background, I’ve grown up revering vegetables and understanding just how delicious they can be. But you may not have been so lucky.
The truth is that preparing delicious vegetables is both quick and easy. You just need to keep a few principles in mind. I’m stealing this from Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series because it is such an effective structure for thinking about vegetables. Whenever cooking veg, you should always think about including and balancing the following elements:
If you include something from every category here, you will have something mouth-watering (and nutritious). If you boil broccoli and slap it on your plate undressed and unseasoned, don’t be surprised if you find it completely unappetising! Imagine baking a chicken breast with no oil, no salt, no pepper and no sauce. Would you eat that?
You may recognise straight away that these categories line up quite neatly with the “healthy-fat dressings” referenced above and that’s no coincidence…
I think salt is one of the least-utilised elements in general vegetable cooking. Salt can bring out the flavours of vegetables like nothing else. Always make sure you have a high-quality sea salt to hand. I use Maldon, which is great (and here’s another option). Table salt WILL NOT DO! Oh, and don’t worry so much about your salt intake. If you’re eating whole foods and training a lot (i.e. sweating and losing salts), you need not be worried about excessive salt intake. In fact, you need to add some salt to restore electrolyte balance. Of course, you should measure your blood sodium to make sure it’s not crazy high but otherwise, be liberal with the salt! You can also use other salty ingredients instead of salt: soy sauce & miso paste are good examples.
When it comes to fat, I’m generally thinking organic extra virgin olive oil or grass fed butter. But there’s nothing to stop you getting more creative here. You could experiment with coconut oil or high quality organic animal fats like streaky bacon (brussel sprouts with streaky bacon is an absolute winner!). The only classes of fats I would avoid are heat-treated nut and seed oils and vegetable oils.
Again, acid is incredibly important and there are a number of great ways to include it:
Apple cider vinegar (ideally with “the mother”)
White wine / red wine vinegar
Heat is the last category here and quite important. People so often boil vegetables to the point of soggy sadness. This may not be the best way to extract flavour! Personally, especially for leafy greens, I prefer to sautee in a little olive oil and salt. You’ll get more flavour that way and it’s super quick: you can fry up some kale or spinach in less than 5 minutes. You should also consider roasting your vegetables.
Meal-prep has some fairly negative connotations in my mind. I immediately imagine marathon sessions of baking chicken breast and piles of plastic tupperware boxes so high I can’t see over them. That doesn’t really appeal to me. Of course, if you are the kind of person who loves to do that sort of thing, please, by all means go ahead and do it.
I prefer another, simpler strategy. You see, in years gone by, before meal-prep was a thing, our grandmothers already had the perfect solution to the problem of eating well throughout the day. It was known as “leftovers”. The idea is pretty outrageous: at dinner time, cook twice as much as you need and eat the rest for lunch the next day. If you do that every evening, you’ll do just fine and you’ll never need to eat dry 5-day-old chicken breast again! I realise some of you may not love the idea of cooking every night. But unless you’re working late and given the masses of information above on how to prepare nutritious food rapidly, I have to say I don’t really love that excuse. If you don’t cook, you’ll never be lean. Suck it up, butter cup.
Again, I understand that this won’t work for everyone. If you work in the evenings you may need to do some prep on the weekends. If you prefer to ‘batch’ your tasks and knock them out in one session, be my guest. But I’ve found this to be a really enjoyable and light-work approach to meal prep.
A week of food and how to do your grocery shopping:
Some of you may already know that I am an enthusiastic promoter of online food shopping, and Abel and Cole in particular! Ordering all your food for the week ahead of time forces you to plan a little and prevents you from making poor decisions when you go shopping hungry. I know that if I go to the supermarket when I’m already peckish, I am coming home with thousands of calories of unnecessary and unhealthy foods. And once they are in my house, you better believe I am eating every last crumb! This is bad for my wallet and my waistline…
Avoid this pitfall by doing a weekly shop online. With companies like Abel & Cole, you can also set up a recurring basket with certain items delivered every week, fortnight, month, quarter or any other time period you like. Most weeks, I need do very little editing to my basket and I simply wait for a boat-load of organic, nutritious food to show up at my door on Wednesday. It’s the dream!
Specifics can be really useful so here is an example of a week’s grocery shopping for me and how I cook and eat throughout the week. Everything below is organic and sourced from high-quality farms. Please feel free to use this as a template of sorts (and you can even click on the links and add them to your trolley), if you think that would be beneficial. Although, note that I eat bread nowadays… Mostly because I’m not trying to lose fat and I have been weight stable for a long time.
For me, the nutritional week begins on Wednesday, since that is when the Abel and Cole arrives:
- It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good.
- It’s consistent: almost every breakfast is the same. This allows me to save time on decisions and also helps control intake since these meals will always be fairly similar in terms of calories and macros.
- I leverage leftovers relentlessly!
- Some days I eat twice, other days I eat 3 times.
- I cook regularly and do very little ordering in, especially during the week.
- I eat out on the weekend, but I try to stay fairly compliant.
- You won’t notice this, but I am forced to eat seasonally (since Abel and Cole does not sell food out of season). This basket would have been very heavy on the kale, spinach and chard a few weeks ago. But we’re moving into summer now and those greens are not available. Eating like this allows me to get a varied diet throughout the year without having to think about things.
Everyone is different and I’m certainly not saying that you should eat exactly like me. But I hope this overview gives you an idea of what a week’s groceries and cooking / eating could look like for you. Feel free to use this as a template and adjust things so that they work for you. Or, if you prefer, start from scratch.
But please do consider doing weekly shops. You’ll save time and money. You’ll also be forced to plan ahead and sketch out your week of eating. This will help immeasurably in terms of keeping you on track!
A note to performance athletes and others:
I said at the beginning that there were certain people who may want to adapt this general nutritional framework to better suit their purposes. This may be you if:
- You’re focused on performance rather than fat-loss or train at a higher volume or higher intensity (i.e. if you train 5+ times per week and 90 minutes+ per session)
- You’re fairly lean already / happy with where you’re at AND you’ve been weight stable for a while (6 months+)
- You’re not necessarily particularly lean or focused on performance but you’re happy where you are weight-wise and interested in balancing health with a more flexible and enjoyable dietary approach
If any of the above describes you, you may want to include a few other items in your diet, particularly a wider choice of carbohydrates. I would start with the following:
Good quality bread (long-fermentation sourdough is my fave)
If you’re focusing on performance, you may want to limit the fats a little and increase your carbs more. If you want to get specific, there are lots of services out there which can help you figure out macronutrient targets.
Equally, if you’re weight stable or happy where you are, adding some grains to your diet should not be a problem. Just be mindful of how much you are relying on grains. I still prefer to only include grains once a day, in general. This helps me focus on the vegetables and fruits that should serve as the base of everyone’s nutrition. You should also pay attention to how particular choices of grains make you feel. For me, oats cause uncomfortable bloating and I know they just don’t work. If you have a similar response to any of these grains, just avoid them.
So, that’s been a fairly comprehensive journey through my take on nutrition! I hope you find it helpful in achieving your own goals.
Remember that this is just one perspective on nutrition. It is not the be-all and end-all. I have found this to be very effective, both for myself and for many others. But if you have an approach that you like and understand, you shouldn’t feel compelled to suddenly jump ship. There is no ultimate diet. There are many, many good diets. Part of the problem we face in the fitness industry is that people are very tribal about their nutrition or training. I think we need to be more open-minded.
I started by highlighting the fact that fat-loss does NOT just come down to nutrition. Abs are not only made in the kitchen, but elsewhere too. Make sure to stay generally active, outside of training. Pay attention to the quality and duration of your sleep and manage your stress as best you can.
I then outlined the 3 levels of nutritional knowledge: Principles, Prescription and Practicalities.
My Principles are:
Consistency is king
Keep it simple
Eliminate will power
With these things always guiding my thinking, my Prescription is the following:
- Fast 14-16 hours per day, according to your lifestyle and commitments
- Eat as many times within your eating window as feels natural
- Eat meat and fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar
- Avoid processed foods and grains. No rice, oats, bread etc.
- Make sure to always include a high-quality source of protein in every meal
- Make up the rest of your plate with non-starchy and starchy vegetables, fruit and healthy fats and dressings
Moving on to Practicalities, we covered a number of topics:
- Food hacks. Make sure to keep your larder stocked with the list of foods above so that you always have options for fast and nutritious meals
- Meal-prep / left-overs. When you cook dinner, just go ahead and cook double portions. The left-overs are your lunch for tomorrow
- To make sure your vegetables are always delicious, consider Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat
- Order your weekly food online and plan your meals ahead of time