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The Priorities of Dieting (in ORDER)

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How to Diet, And More Specifically, How to Structure Your Diet in Terms of Priorities

You see, nutrition has a lot of variables. If changing your body composition is an equation, each of these variables has a place. While all variables are important to some degree or another, in order to get the best possible results, you’ll want to adjust these in the correct sequence.

Let’s Go Back To Math Class

I know, I know. You were told, “there’d be no math.”

Don’t worry; you won’t have to actually do any math; I just want to make an analogy to illustrate a point.

When you were learning math early on, you were probably taught the correct order of operations was PEMDAS–parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. You were taught that these needed to be done in this order, and you remembered it with clever sayings like Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.

This was important. If you didn’t know the order and you came up against a complex equation, you’d have no idea how to solve it. Doing things out of order would not, generally, work out well for you. Assuming you could actually “solve” the equation, the answer would almost definitely not be correct. And, the process would be frustrating as hell.

Which brings us back to dieting, and my point.

A General Equation for Body Change

As I said, making changes to your body is like an equation. Unlike math, it isn’t an exact science, but thankfully it IS science, and we no know enough about the body to make some pretty broad statements. 

The main variables for body composition would be nutrition, exercise, recovery, lifestyle, and supplementation. Or, if we like acronyms, NERLS. If you like, Never Eat Really Lousy Soup. Or whatever it takes to remember it.

The main thing is, those are the things you need to focus on, and that is the order you need to focus on.

Without question, nutrition is the highest leverage point. I think we can all agree there. People are always asking for percentages, so if you want me to break it down for you, I’d have to say it looks like this:

  • Nutrition – 51%
  • Training – 29%
  • Recovery – 10%
  • Lifestyle – 9%
  • Supplementation -1%

That equals 100%, right? Somebody check my math. Okay, good. 

Anyway, most fitness peeps would agree that it would look something like that.

Obviously, these aren’t exact, and they feed into each other and influence each other. If your lifestyle involves going out 6 nights per week and partying, your recovery will be compromised, etc.

Or, note that while supplementation is a tiny part of the equation, a 1% change can actually yield pretty impressive changes, as it can help act as a force multiplier for other things.

But, no matter what else, there is no escaping the fact that nutrition is at LEAST half of the puzzle. 

Nutrition, Dieting, and How to Make Changes (If You Wanna Change)

If nutrition is the most important thing for making changes to your body, than making changes to your nutrition is going to be equally important, right? Right.

Glad we agree on that. We can also agree that making changes to your nutrition in an attempt to alter your appearance is called dieting. And since we’re no longer afraid of that word, no one is going to run screaming off here.

So. Dieting. On the surface it seems pretty simple: make (positive) changes in your food choices, and you’ll see results.

This is true on both superficial and deep levels, but it’s knowing what to change and when to change it that starts to get confusing.

Like fitness itself, nutrition and dieting have a number of individual components, or variables; these variables include everything from the type of food you eat to the amount of food you eat to when you eat it, to what it’s made up of, to what other foods you eat it with.

And like math, some of these variables carry a bit more weight (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the overall equation; not only are they going to have more overall impact, but sometimes focusing on these things first is the only way to see progress.

However, your body isn’t as cut and dry as math problem; things change as we get further into the equation, and there are very few constants to balance out the variables.

Meaning that these things are going to have different total value for different people, and effect the overall processes differently.

It’s frustrating to not know exactly how or what will be the single deciding factor in getting you where you want to be. BUT – we do know the general order. Or, as an industry, we should. A lot of nutrition experts seem to get so caught up in pitting the minutia of their specific theories against the minutia of other specific theories that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

Me? I’m all about the big picture. And that’s what I want to present to you: the big picture of dieting, and the things that need to be changed in the order that will lead to the biggest overall changes.

The obvious self-protective disclaimer I have to make here to avoid a few snide remarks from the peanut gallery is “again, not an exact science” and “this will be basic in information” and “blah blah blah”.

With that said, I want to first introduce and break down the variables. 

ENERGY INTAKE – this is the total number of Calories you take in. Remember, Calories are a unit of energy, not nutrition; they are used to power your body. Your energy intake versus your energy output are both measured in Calories, and being on one side of the equation instead of the other will often determine progress.

FOOD TYPOLOGY – I use this term because I have no idea what else to call differentiation between broad stroke diets. So, your typology might be Paleo, or Primal, or Vegetarian, or Vegan, or Omnivore, or Standard American Diet, etc. Essentially, it’s the basic catch-all term to describe your general eating habits.

MACRONUTRIENTS – also known as the make-up of your individual food items. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each of these is important, for reasons beyond the scope of this writing (I’ve covered them before, as well), but in terms of dietary manipulation, think “low-fat” versus “low-carb.”

FOOD TIMING – this variable basically has to do with how often or when you eat your food; how many meals you eat per day (6 vs 3, for example), whether you eat every 2-3 hours or do some type of fasting.

FOOD COMBINATION – basically, eating foods with other foods (or avoiding such).

Now, that is both a breakdown of the individual components of dietary change and the order in which they should be manipulated.

I’m going to dive right ahead into my arguments against the typical stuff you hear before anyone has a chance.

“Losing weight comes down to energy balance–if you burn more than you eat, you will lose, and it doesn’t matter what you eat.”

I mean, yeah, sure. That has merit.

Energy balance is important; and if we learned anything from the “Twinkie Diet” from a few years back, it’s that if you keep your calories low enough, you will drop weight. Even if you’re just eating twinkies.

The thing is, while it is possible to lose “weight” subsisting on a low calorie regardless of the foods you eat, it’s not really sustainable.

Further, even at low calories, the foods you eat will play in. Eating 1000 calories from Twinkies is going to have a different effect on your metabolism and hormonal response than eating 1000 calories from steak.

For my purposes, it is 100% impossible to get the progress you want if you just reduce calories. You’ll lose weight, but you probably won’t look very good. So what’s the point?

“Nutrition is about more than energy in/energy out!”

Yes, obviously. However, unless you have some metabolic disorder, it’s still the most important factor. Even if you make changes to the foods you eat.

“If you just go Paleo/Primal/Vegan, etc, you don’t need to worry about calories”

Um, no. God, I love this one. I LOVE when militant dietary warriors get all dogmatic, because I get to exercise my option to not bother arguing with them. There is no convincing zealots of the falseness of their idols.

For the rest of us, it’s like this: your food typology matters a lot. But perhaps not for the reason you think.

I’m not going to argue the merits of the Paleo or Primal movement (because I think they’re awesome), but because I’m familiar and a lot of my clients use this, I’ll use these as my primary example.

And, as awesome as Paleo/Primal are, they aren’t the only way to diet for health or fat loss. Still, we all know someone who switched to paleo or vegan or whatever and lost a bunch of weight “without making any other changes.”

Weeellll…no. Sorry, but no. Just…just no.

Firstly, you can’t call switching to Paleo, which for most people entails eliminating 90% of what they were previously “allowed” to eat, as making one change; it’s a global overhaul of nutritional habits.

Secondly, when someone makes a change to a dietary system that is at it’s heart very restrictive, they are going to eat less than they did previously. There are numerous reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that if there are fewer foods you can eat, you will not eat as much food. In fact, it’s been shown that when people have fewer food options, they eat less, and vice versa.

Along those lines, let’s acknowledge the fact that these diets tend to help people auto-regulate in terms of their calorie intake. Once you eliminate processed foods, it’s much harder to eat the 3500 calories you were taking in beforehand.

Paleo foods, for example, fill you up; if you’ve ever had a “bad” dietary day on a regular diet, you may have hit 4000 calories. Trying to eat 4000 calories of Paleo food is much harder; meats and veggies certainly don’t make for easy eating.

This is not to say that from an isocaloric perspective being Paleo (for example) isn’t better than eating twinkies; as I covered, that isn’t the case. Your hormonal and metabolic reaction to these foods will be better, and you’ll have better health. Period.

“Oh, so you agree, Paleo is the solution?”

Dude, that’s not what I said. Look, it’s not rocket science to understand that chances are, for most people following an organic diet with no processed foods is going to be better. But you can’t just slap a label on it and call it a day, energy intake still matters.

This is the thing that annoys me about the more dogmatic people within the Paleo community–the refusal to recognize that a superior dietary strategy doesn’t completely countermand the Laws of Thermodynamics. Sorry.

Not to turn this into a rant, but for anyone to say that you don’t ever have to worry about calories on any diet isn’t just untrue–it’s insane. Meaning, if you’re eating 8,000 calories and you only need to be eating 2,000, you’re going to gain weight.

Certainly, you’ll probably gain less eating 8,000 cals of steak and veggies than you would if it was 8,000 calories worth of donuts. But a huge caloric excess is still going to result in changes to body composition.

To quote the philosopher Darth Vader, “Search your feelings; you know it to be true.”

Sorry. I don’t make science. I just report it. Moving on.

“Momma said carbz are the devil, Colonel Sanders! Just eliminate them and you’ll be fine.”

Macronutrient manipulation is a very powerful piece of the puzzle; but it’s not the only thing you need to look at. If you drop carbs, you’ll drop weight, for a while. Especially if you have a lot of fat to lose. But, without any other adjustments, you’ll stall out pretty quickly.

Again, you have to worry about overall energy intake. You tend to eat less on low carb diets. Or, really, eating more carbs makes you likely to eat more, as they are less filling, lead to faster gastric emptying times, and are extra delicious.

Of course, the elimination of carbohydrates has a ton of benefits hormonally, which is one reason I recommend it so strongly, particularly in the beginning phases of most diets. However, to ever suggest that this is the only step you need to take or even the most important step on the road to a better body is misleading.

“Oh, just try Intermittent Fasting and don’t worry about anything else.”

I love fasting. I really and truly do. In fact, I’m doing it right now. I’ll be the first to admit is that like anything else, IF tends to help people lose weight because it helps regulate energy intake.

For starters, it’s harder to overeat if you have dedicated periods during which you do not eat at all. Additionally, fasting helps in terms of appetite control…which also helps you eat less. And so on.

Of course, fasting works for other reasons as well, which I have covered ad nauseam, and won’t repeat here. So, while there are a lot of benefits hormonally, and in terms of convenience, and overall practicality of application, fasting it’s not the end-all-be-all.

Meaning you can’t “just try IF” and not worry about adjusting anything else.

Aaaaaanyway…

As you can tell by my arguments, I think all of these things are important. For some people changing any of these things will lead to results; in fact, for a few, changing that one will lead to greater results than adjusting two or three of the other variables. At least in the short term.

However, in an absolute sense, there is no ONE key that you can change that will yield consistent results over time–at least not if you want to go past the original burst of results.

And so, while all of the variables I discussed are all important to some degree, as I’ve alluded to, some are just more important than others. Or, at least, will serve as greater leverage points.

So, to represent things mathematically, I’ve organized it for you below.

The Priorities of Dieting: The Roman Order of Dietary Operations:

  • Energy Intake – 33-43%
  • Food Typology – 25-35%
  • Macronutrients – 20%
  • Food Timing – 10%
  • Food Combination – 2%

As you can see, out of deference to those who would argue, I’ve allowed for a range of impact for the first two, as I think they will have the largest person-to-person variance. But, it’s pretty damn accurate.

Still, it’s not exactly as neat as PEMDAS, but again, you’re not a math problem, and it won’t be an exact science, my take home point is very simple:

If you want to maximize results to the absolute greatest degree possible, focus on making changes to THOSE variables, in THAT order. Period.

Remember that when it comes to dieting, it’s not just what you change–it’s the order you make the changes in.

Now go tell everyone you know. Because, as my good friend G.I. Joe says, knowing is half the battle.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Isaac Payne

    Great article, the hierarchy of dietary needs is money. People get too caught up in all of the wrong things and end up nowhere. The only you didn’t mention was that none of this stuff happens overnight. People’s need for instant gratification is what causes them to yo-yo so much and look for the next big thing.

    http://www.isaac-payne.com/7-benefits-of-flexible-dieting-iifym/

  • John this is one of the best articles on dieting I’ve read.

    I’m sick of seeing so much BS on social media this time of year about people basically starving themselves, going all out at the gym and then bragging about their ‘incredible results’.

    There’s only so long you can put up with feeling hungry all day before you realise you can’t do it anymore. Then comes the crazy binge on everything you’ve deprived yourself, the weight piles back on just as fast and you go looking for the next miracle diet.

    I know people that literally spend years doing this. I’ll be sharing this article with them and across social media as this is exactly the sort of article people should be paying attention to.

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