Diet Advice Fundamentals

Our team forum had a discussion pop the other day on diet & weight loss to improve W/kg. Of course, it got out of hand quickly with suggestions tending toward more extreme, flashy tactics such as;

Don’t eat on rides shorter than two hours

Protein powder as meal replacement

Go to bed hungry

I cringe a bit when diet advice is tossed around between athletes of varying caliber and experience levels. A veteran semi-pro racer might talk about what they did to get under 10% body fat for a single weekend A race, but the club rider weekend-warrior father of four, or the university-aged female rookie might take that as gospel and try to implement some drastic changes that will inevitably be counterproductive for their health, weight and overall fitness.

There are basic, healthy strategies to implement before considering anything resembling a strict diet. Here’s what I offered as starting steps to eating healthy, losing those easy first kilos and introducing your body to better eating habits. The order was as it came to me, but essentially begins with the simplest steps to implement and progresses toward more advanced, dedicated strategies.

  1. “Perfect is the enemy of good” and perfect-but-unsustainable is worse than good-enough-and-achievable. Trying to implement any extreme dietary change all at once (Jan 1st, I’m looking at you!) is a recipe for failure. Making small changes and sticking to them consistently will be more effective over the long term.

  2. Start by making dietary inclusions rather than exclusions; ie. add an extra serving of veggies to every meal. Eat that first, then just eat normally to satiate hunger. Far easier to add to a diet than to restrict.

  3. More water – on and off the bike. You want a magic diet pill? This is as close as you’re gonna get.

  4. Protein. Eat more of it. Hungry before bed? Boil an egg.

  5. “Will Power” doesn’t exist, as such. It’s a finite resource. Think of resisting a craving is an exercise in infinite decision making – you’re deciding not to eat something, until you do.. then all those infinite decisions not to eat that thing are rendered irrelevant. Remove the decision point entirely; remove the opportunity to cheat and don’t keep snacks you want to avoid in the house or at work, etc. and relatedly:

  6. Set a SMART goal – Be Specific in what you want to achieve; Have your rationale and motivations clear. Make it Measurable and Attainable; You don’t need to stand on the scale every morning, but have a way to track your progress over time. Be Realistic; Your target can move but have a clear understanding of how your decisions today will affect your ability to achieve your goal. Make it Timely; You can’t sustain race weight all summer. Determine an A Race or other event that you would like to peak for.

  7. Plan ahead – Load up your fridge, living room, office desk, bedside drawer – wherever you normally get cravings – with snackable veggies. Go to town on them when cravings hit. Cook healthy meals ahead of time. Make them quick and idiot-proof; make healthy food more convenient than non-healthy food.

  8. Don’t sacrifice training for diet: Find you can’t hit your target numbers on your morning fasting ride? Don’t hesitate to break out that emergency banana. We all still have easy watts to gain from training that will boost our absolute output and W/kg. At 80kg and FTP of 250 W, what’s better: +10 W or -1 kg? You do the math. More importantly, what’s easier to achieve?

  9. Track your intake. Now we’re getting serious. For a few days or a week at first. Start by looking at nutrition value of your staple meals & snacks and overestimate intake. You can’t change something if you don’t know where you’re starting. Eventually try to include everything – the spoonful of yogurt, the 3 bites of leftover casserole, the cream in your coffee.. they add up.

  10. Schedule a cheat day. Controversial, but I couldn’t last without it. Every week or two weeks as necessary. Plan ahead of time how long you can last without going off diet, and underestimate it! No limits on Cheat Day, go to town… Do it after the Saturday team hammerfest when you’re already in a deep caloric deficit. But this only works if you actually adhere to your healthy diet the other 6 days of the week!

Just like anything, you need to train your body to adapt to change. Exercise is changing the output, diet is changing the input. Both are equally as important. So you’ve covered all the low-hanging fruit for healthful eating? Fine.. go for your intermittent juice fast gluten-free keto caloric restricted hunger strike multivitamin low carb low fat level 5 vegan diet and tell me how long you last 🙂

I, as a human person, have also struggled with lowering my weight, controlling cravings and lusting after big numbers above the W/kg fraction line and little numbers below. I would say I’m fairly happy with having found a healthful diet starting with the principles here, that I can adhere to and progress from. I know that I can experiment with implementing more strict, more flashy, more extreme dietary strategies and that if I temporarily fail I have something good-enough-and-sustainable to fall back to.

2016-01-22 18.36.24
Bunch of veggies, lentils, quinoa & chicken thrown in the cast iron pan – the idiot-proof “good-enough” meal that comprises 60% of my diet

You might not reach a BMI of 18 and sub-10% body fat with only the strategies above, but you can certainly lose those first 3 kilos and set a lower baseline for your sustainable body composition. It just takes time, practice and consistency.

4 thoughts on “Diet Advice Fundamentals

  1. Like you I hate the flashy slogans how to control/lose weight. Or eat healthy.

    Do what traditional Japanese have done: eat so you feel 80% full. And don’t have dinner too late which I did fall down with a previous long job commute where I didn’t eat until after 8:00 pm. I ended up gaining weight.

    So I eat dinner best any time before 7:30 pm.


    1. Yeah, Good advice and agreed completely Jean.

      Going the whole day without eating and falling into a blood-glucose deficient hole every night is a great way to end up digging into the cookies rather than your planned healthy meal.. Another reason it helps simply not to having them in the house!

      There are compelling anecdotes and some research on intermittent overnight fasting, setting an (eg.) 8-hour window in which to eat during the day and letting your body slowly drop into a fasting state overnight. This can be tough to schedule around work, life and training, and the arbitrary time constraints can be counterproductive if daily timing of energy expenditure varies. Generally it’s better to get in more calories in the morning and fewer in the evening so that your body isn’t working hard to break down and synthesize the calories overnight when it should be recovering and metabolizing waste products (reference needed for this claim!).


  2. Stick to non-processed whole plant foods, limit or eliminate animal products and processed starches/juices. Processed oils are especially problematic as they are easily metabolized into body fat. Your body likes to use energy in the most efficient way possible. It will avoid turning carbs into fat unless you are drastically overfeeding (easier to do with processed starches/sugars) or you have been starvation dieting for some time and your metabolism is in famine mode. People (including myself) have success on low carbs because your body prefers to uses its energy stores in this order glycogen->fat->protein. A low carb diet keeps your glycogen stores low and forces you to use your fat stores while calorie restricting. This is not appropriate for an endurance athlete as above zone 2 your body will burn a significant amount (50% or more of calorie usage) of glycogen during exercise. I’ve had 20 odd years of experience with diet/fitness and that’s my new advice. The problem with low carbs/calorie restriction isn’t losing the weight, I’ve dropped down to very low body fat, 6% or so this way. The problem is gaining it back again. I’d rather eat like a teenager till I’m stuffed every meal and maintain a high energy level for pounding out the long intervals 6 days a week. Other points to keep in mind:

    There is evidence that 1.4g/kg/day protein for endurance athletes is beneficial.

    90% is ‘good enough’. Bacon on Saturday morning won’t kill you.

    I’m in science and have a background in biochemistry aside from an interest in nutrition. Atkins/low carb ‘research’ is mostly based on industry funded, biased or ‘cherry picked’ research. Bacon, eggs and steak is not health food. In spite of short term weight loss it can hurt you in the long term. I don’t necessarily advocate ‘veganism’ as that has ethical implications, but rather mostly plant based whole foods, limiting animal products when possible. If you have to, stick to fish when you can, omega 3s are good for you.. But that’s a whole other discussion….


  3. Good point well made Rob, on requiring glycogen for higher intensity activity – you could probably re-teach me a ton of exercise physiology that I’ve forgotten, and nutrition theory that I’ve never had a chance to learn!

    You can certainly train your capacity to continue to metabolize fat (ie. long-term energy reserves) at outputs above aerobic threshold, but CHOs in the form of blood glucose (short-term energy) and muscle glycogen (medium-term energy) will be the limiting factor to performance.

    Tim Ferriss has some great inspirational and actionable information on low carb, slow carb and keto diets.. super interesting although a bit beyond what was supported by the literature, at least ~5 years ago. My own low/slow CHO diet is evolved from reading his book, but I’m not up to date on the current state of the research into fat-adaptation for endurance athletes.

    That’s a rabbit hole for another evening 🙂


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