Dietary Tracking Continuum – The Effortless Guide to Periodizing Your Nutrition
How’s it going Train Loco readers! Today we have an awesome guest blog by our friends and colleagues, The Shredded By Science Team. The SBS Team is a group of 11 coaches around the world that practice evidence-based methods with their clients. We have a ton of respect for them, love the direction they’re going in, appreciate how they’re trying to evolve the fitness industry with science, and more. If you’ve never heard of nutrition periodization…think periodization in training. But we will let the SBS folks tell about it in depth. Enjoy!
-Eric and Chris
Throughout history, there have been many famous rivalries which divide popular opinion almost to the point of open warfare. Manchester United or Liverpool? House Stark or House Lannister? Milk or water first in your tea?
(Yes – I’m English. I drink tea, I watch “soccer”, and am overly sarcastic about everything)
In the nutrition industry, the latest rivalry on the block has caused more arguments than Kanye West at an awards ceremony.
IIFYM vs Clean Eating
People will have you believe there are two distinct camps. You either track macros or you don’t. Depending on which side of the nutritional fence you stand, you either spend your life in a constant state of orthorexia, or you spend your life weighing and measuring every morsel of food that passes your pop tart-covered lips.
Unfortunately, the fitness industry loves to create arguments where there shouldn’t be any.
Introducing: The False Dichotomy
A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy that involves presenting two opposing views (IIFYM v Clean eating), in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false.
Or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted.
It’s black or white. You track or you don’t – there is no middle ground.
Today I want to show you why this type of thinking is flawed, and that clean eating and IIFYM are simply two ends of a dietary continuum.
Much in the same way we periodise our training volume and intensity to peak for specific events, I believe the same should hold true for the accuracy or intensity with which we track our nutritional intakes.
We should not be viewing tracking your dietary intake as an either/or issue. Instead we could (and I believe should) be selecting the appropriate dietary tracking method based on the circumstances we are currently faced with.
I present to you…
The Dietary Tracking Continuum.
So, where do you sit on the continuum right now?
Where you sit on the continuum will depend on a number of factors.
1. Education (Nutritional Age)
Similar to the concept of training age, I define your nutritional age as the time you have been consciously learning about nutrition and implementing some type of nutritional strategies.
Let’s compare the guy who has been living off of Twinkies and Cola for the last 10 years and the physique competitor. Despite potentially being the same chronological age, they have very different nutritional ages.
People often forget for somebody to be able to track macros they actually have to understand what a macro is, have a sound understanding of the macronutrient breakdown of foods (what foods are sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates), have a reasonable idea of portion control and can identify nutritionally dense foods.
When teaching maths to a 10 year old, you probably won’t be asking them to estimate the mass of the universe… unless you’re teaching the next Einstein, obviously.
They need time to learn the basics before moving on to more advanced topics. The skills associated with nutritional tracking are much the same. Start off with the basics (the bottom of the continuum) and build on this overtime.
The mum of two (looking to lose some baby weight and regain some fitness so she can keep up with her kids) and the bikini girl have related, but very differing goals. Their tracking approaches should be representative of these differences.
Stepping on stage in your underwear? Then we need to get accurate… very accurate. So we will move you towards the top of the continuum.
Looking to lose a few pounds and just be in better shape? Then we can probably get you to your goals will a less austere tracking approach. We will move you towards the bottom of the continuum.
Despite what some top “fit pro” may tell you, motivation is not some endless reserve! Whether it be work, study, kids, friends or spouses – most of us have more stress in our life than simply training and eating.
As a result, what started out as motivation levels higher than Bob Marley on a kite may ebb and flow – it’s only natural. As it does, we need to marry it with the appropriate dietary tracking approach.
What we want to steer clear of is the “Oh F- it” approach. Many of you may have well experienced the F-it approach. Think back to a time when you were stressed and weighing and measuring your food was a hassle you didn’t need.
Your motivation to track is low, and after a week or so you can no longer be bothered to track.
“F-it I will just eat what I want”.
Bam – you’re off the wagon, off the plan, everything’s gone to crap.
Again, instead of thinking in black and white terms of tracking or not tracking we should simply be trying to match the appropriate level of accuracy of tracking with your motivation.
Between being perfect and quitting is being better. Which approach allows you to be better than the F-it approach?
Feeling really motivated? Then move towards the top of the continuum.
Feeling a little stressed and de-motivated? Move down a little.
*Note * Moving up or down is relative to the individual. A de-motivated physique competitor may still track more accurately than a motivated novice . Again the consideration of nutritional age and goals must be taken into account.
4. Training Phase (Periodization)
Whether you know it or not, I bet your training follows some form of periodization over the year.
For powerlifters or physique competitors it will be based around your competitive calendar. At its most basic level you will have an off-season, in-season, pre-competition (peaking) and post-competition .
For the general public / fitness enthusiast the same tends to hold true… except competitions take the form of holidays or upcoming social events. How many people do we know that train their ass off pre-holiday and relax things once they get back? I know I have.
That, my friends, is still a form of periodisation.
Each phase of the year has different demands and requires different levels of accuracy and attention to detail.
6 months out from your next competition? We can afford to relax somewhat.
6 days from the holiday of a lifetime? We will want to keep things tight and accurate (relative to you).
Having given you an outline of the dietary tracking continuum I would like to provide you with some specific methods that you can implement today based on YOUR circumstances.
Before we get into it, I would like to make two points.
Each method is not mutually exclusive. Many of the methods presented can work synergistically.
Methods can be changed on a weekly, even daily basis in order to best serve your needs.
Ad Libitum Dieting
Ad libitum dieting translates to “at one’s pleasure”. Simply put you eat according to hunger. This is where most of the population sit. Satiety and appetite regulate how much you eat. While this can provide a nice break from tracking, lots of people actually struggle to correctly interpret hunger signals (dehydration, hyper palatable food, mindless eating). As a result, many may be prone to over eating on an ad libitum approach. Thus, apply with caution.
Ad Libitum (Photo critique)
Eating to satiety, however food is logged with the use of photos. This can be done every day, once per week even biweekly. The photos allow you to reflect on your days intake providing you with some food for thought (pun intended) with regards to how you could improve the quality and the quantity of your diet.
Habit Based Diet
Choose up to three (no more) nutritional habits you will look to develop and then sustain. This could be getting a serving of protein for breakfast, drinking 2 litres of water or getting in 3 servings of veg per day. When selecting your habits think what will provide you with the biggest return for the smallest input?
Why no more than three habits at once?
You see, the more habits we try to undertake at once the chances of successfully maintaining that habit are dramatically reduced. I am sure we all know people who have started a diet on Monday and gone cold turkey. They change 101 things in their diet and despite grinding through it for a couple of weeks they ultimately set themselves up to quit or “fail”. Want to bench 405lbs? Most of us appreciate that it won’t happen overnight. We have to be consistent with our training. Diet is no different.
I recommend using a calendar to tick off each day that you successfully implemented your habits. Only when the habit has been implemented every single day for 14 days can new habits be added. This simple tracking approach helps to improve the quality of the diet. Allowing yourself to experience a number of small wins helps increase your chance of sustainability.
This is great for people with a low nutritional age or people who already have good eating habits (ad libitum) but are looking to tighten up in a few specific areas.
Adherence Based Diet
This is a slightly more advanced version of the habit based diet. Set a small number of diet rules (this can be done as an individual or between you and your coach). Each meal that you adhere to said rules you get a tick. At the end of the week, count up your ticks. You can pre-determine the number of ticks you are trying to accumulate through the week, but a tick for 80% of your meals is a good ball park figure.
Score Based Diet
Each day reflect on your food intake and score yourself 1-10. One being god-awful, and ten being perfect. The marking criteria are completely up to you. You could go off your own subjections or you could give yourself a more quantitative approach with a set of criteria for each score. Even the criteria themselves can be adjusted from month to month based on changes in circumstances. This allows you to track in a highly individualised but practical way.
Over the course of the week what scores are you averaging?
Five or below? We need to tighten up a touch or reassess if your current tracking approach is matched to our current circumstances.
Seven plus? Keep doing what you’re doing.
PN Portion Control Diet
As the name implies I picked this method up from the guys at Precision Nutrition. The idea is simple yet brilliant. You use your hands as a portable measuring guide.
At each meal, a male would aiming to consume two palms of protein, two fists of veg, two cupped handfuls of carb dense foods and two thumbs of fats. Females aim for one of each.
It’s a great platform for understanding portion control and ensures a relatively moderate macronutrient split. Of course, customisations can be made to ensure they fit your goal.
Looking to lose some weight? Remove a handful of carbohydrates.
Wanting to carb cycle? Have three handfuls of carbohydrates per meal on Mondays, two handfuls on Tuesdays and one handful on Wednesdays. You are effectively tracking your food intake without the need to weigh food.
For more information, head over to the PN webiste.
Protein Only Track
As the name implies you simply track your protein intake. For the guys and girls that are new to tracking macros it provides some education on appropriate protein intakes .For the more nutritionally advanced it works as a safety blanket, ensuring you are consuming enough protein to maintain muscle mass and recover from hard training while not having to bother with tracking the rest of your macros. It can be great for off season or periods of maintenance.
Credit to the owner of Shredded By Science Luke Johnson for this one. After speaking to Luke, Sir Alan Aragon presented this at his UK conference in 2014.
The semi track is simply tracking your protein and scale weight. Tracking protein ensures adequate intake while monitoring scale weight tells you if you are in a surplus, deficit or at maintenance. These changes in scale weight will dictate alterations to the diet.
This is a sweet spot for a lot of fitness enthusiasts. It provides some qualitative data from the protein and scale weight whilst providing enough leniency that people are not overwhelmed by tracking all of their macros.
At the base level, whether we are losing, gaining or maintain weight comes down to net energy balance. Tracking your calories only, regardless of the macronutrient content, provides equal measures of flexibility and objectivity. Consideration needs to be taken when applying this method as a good level of nutritional knowledge is required in order to ensure nutrient requirements are met (fibre, protein, micronutrients etc) via the inclusion of nutritionally dense foods.
Cheat Day Track
This is great for the Ad Libitum dieter who fancies kicking their heels up or has a planned social event. Simply track your macros on that day. With a bit of planning you can input your planned meal into your macro tracker at the start of the day. This allows you to plan the rest of the day’s meals around your remaining macronutrients. You get to enjoy the chance of eating a bit of the junk food you fancy whilst staying in line with your fitness goals.
A rough idea of maintenance calories/macros is required.
Intermittent Macro Track
Simply track your macros 2-5 days per week. This is the intersection between ad libitum dieting and full time tracking. Ad libitum days provide you with some freedom while days you track provide you with a sense of dietary calibration. This is great for physique competitors who have become bogged down by daily weighing and measuring yet still feel the need to have some form of macro tracking.
Daily tracking but with a macro/calorie range of ±10-20%. The range allows for some flexibility in food choices. A great place for an off-season athlete.
Hitting your macros to within 5g. This level of precision is potentially needed pre-contest. However this approach should, in my opinion, be discouraged for extended periods as it may lead to obsessive behaviours.
Whilst periodization of training is well established, many individuals are yet to implement this premise into their nutritional practices.
Tracking nutritional intake is not to be viewed as a monochrome issue. Ad libitum dieting and IIFYM are simply two methods on opposite ends of the rich tapestry of the dietary tracking continuum.
Using this approach, individuals can apply the appropriate method to their current circumstances, based off of their education, goals, motivation and training phase.
Whilst the aim of this article is not to provide you with a definitive list of tracking methods I hope it has gone some way to highlighting the principle of the dietary tracking continuum.
Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it better than I ever could:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Gregg Slater completed his BSc (Hons) in Sport and Exercise in 2007 before moving into teaching. Having spent the last 5 years working at the School of Physical Training in the Royal Air Force he plans on leaving the service in 2016 to complete a MSc in applied sports nutrition. Gregg hope’s to help change the fitness industry through Shredded By Science and Lift The Bar fitness mentoring
Shredded By Science are an evidence based online coaching team made up of 11 coaches. They regularly put out evidence based content to help raise the industry standards and set the standards of online coaching.
They coach clients one to one online and have their new educational membership in the form of Shreducation. To get a free copy click here
Keep an eye out for their SBS Academy launching this September. There are some big names in the fitness sphere involved.
Need Help Periodizing your Nutrition?
If you would like us to help you periodize your nutrition around your schedule, goals, and the foods you like then let us help you by contacting us HERE.