Two of life’s best pleasures are good food, and being fit and lean. They seem contradictory, but despite widespread belief you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can be fit and lean and indulge in whatever treats you feel like. And there are no exotic supplements, drugs, or extreme exercise regimes needed.
Decadent food can easily lead to fatness. That’s why we associate the food itself with overweight and obesity. And intuitively it seems like there 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. 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.
(Unless you’re one of those mythic lucky people who can eat cheesecake all day long and stay lean. Though ironically such people often don’t enjoy food much anyway.)
Everywhere you look there are people who seem to prove it. Either consciously or not they elect to indulge, and get extremely fat as a result.
What really makes us fat
We use energy from food to stay alive, fuel activity, and maintain current fat stores. This is called total daily energy expenditure or TDEE.
When we eat less than TDEE, we tap into fat stores and lose weight. Conversely, when we eat more than TDEE, we add to fat stores.
Adiposity is that simple. When we eat too much we get fat. However, that doesn’t mean there are inherently fattening foods.
Composition vs quantity
If you eat a sufficient quantity of any food you’ll get fat, and food choice per se has little effect on our ability to lose weight. What you eat and how much you eat are distinct concepts. People fail to recognize the difference.
It’s not just semantics
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 eating a lot of pizza than a lot of vegetables.
If you’re a hopeless foodie like me who also refuses to be out of shape, thankfully there is a way to navigate this paradox.
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, so a mere taste defeats our epicurean point.
The fit foodie’s tools
We have are two deceptively powerful concepts at our disposal:
- Energy intake target.
- Meal Frequency and size.
Whether the goal is fat loss, muscle gain, or maintenance, we need to know how much food energy to take in. With that set, meal frequency and size then allow great flexibility.
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 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 won’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.
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 midday-ish. 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 can include 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, skipping meals can lead to issues for people with a history of eating disorders (beyond my expertise, but proceed with caution).
Health is also an important consideration. Theoretically you could eat only very high-calorie indulgent food and still maintain a very lean state. However, it’s wise to make sure you’re covering your nutritional bases as well as your foodie-ism.