When it comes to nutrition, there are many different ways to a skin a cat…
Indeed, there are lot of different dieting approaches, and many of them can work under the right set of circumstances.
However, there is no denying that if you want to get in great shape, you need to get your nutrition in order.
I want to be clear about this: it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever look the way you want if you neglect your diet, even if you are pushing yourself hard in the gym.
When you break it down, there are essentially 3 different approaches to dieting that you can take: rule-based, meal plans, or logging.
In this article, I’m going to go through all 3 of these methods, highlighting the pros and cons of each, so that you can determine what makes the most sense for you.
I would imagine that this is the type of dieting approach that people are most familiar with.
And each year, there are inevitably a few new ‘hot’ diets that emerge and get a lot of hype in the media.
Basically, a rule-based diet gives you a firm set of rules to follow, generally based on restricting certain food groups.
For example, Atkins limits carbohydrates, whereas Paleo excludes specific foods like dairy and grains.
It is important to note, however, that despite the claims of many of these rule-based diets, there isn’t some sort of magical formula at work.
Instead, these diets are simply designed to help you consume fewer calories than you would otherwise. If the rules cause you to do that, then the diet is successful.
The pros of rule-based diets
- Easy to learn and follow: The rules are usually clearly laid out, and aren’t usually very complicated to learn.
- Somewhat flexible: You are free to choose (to some extent) the specific foods you eat, as long as they meet the rules.
- Can be quite effective: Depending on your specific goals, rule-based diets can be quite effective – especially if you are simply looking to lose weight, and aren’t as concerned with overall body composition.
The cons of rule-based diets
- Reduced accuracy: Since the rules are more general – and often based on rough approximations – rule-based aren’t as accurate as other dieting methods.
- Easy to feel like you’ve failed: Rule-based diets are often absolutist in nature. If you break one of the rules, then you’ve failed. This can lead to unnecessary stress.
- Limited effectiveness: Eating the correct number of calories and macronutrients is very important. Rule-based diets often lack the ability to control these elements precisely.
- Low accountability: You are not typically logging what you eat on rule-based diets, which can decrease dietary compliance.
- Forms incorrect beliefs: When you start seeing results on a rule-based diet, it’s easy to place too much emphasis on the specific rules themselves, rather than the underlying principles. This can limit future progress and make you less adaptable.
A meal plan is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – all of your meals completely planned out, leaving no room for discretion.
For breakfast, you eat 1 bowl of cereal, 4 eggs, and a banana.
For lunch, a chicken breast, some rice, and an apple.
For dinner, it’s salmon, spinach, and a serving of couscous.
You get the picture…
By definition, meal plans don’t have much variety, day-to-day.
In fact, they have almost zero variety, which is what makes them both effective and incredibly tedious.
The pros of meal plans
- Very little thinking required: You just eat exactly what you’re told to eat, and often the same thing every day.
- Highly effective: If you follow a well-formulated meal plan properly, you are almost guaranteed to get results.
- Cost-effective: Since you are eating the same foods, you can often start buying these foods in bulk and saving money.
The cons of meal plans
- Incredibly repetitive: You eat the same foods all the time, which can lead to boredom very quickly.
- Inflexible: Many people are unable to control what they eat all the time. If you have work lunches/dinners, or frequently eat with other people, then meal plans can be almost impossible to follow.
- Unrealistic long-term: In reality, it is highly unlikely that you’ll follow the same meal forever. For this reason, meal plans have a short-term focus, and are unlikely to help form lasting dietary habits.
- Increased risk of nutrient deficiencies: Even if your meal plan satisfies your caloric and macronutrient requirements, the limited range of foods will often leave you deficient in important micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Logging Your Food
Finally, we come to the most involved – yet arguably most effective – dietary approach: logging what you eat.
To many people, counting your calories might sound like a real chore.
And in the past, this was certainly the case…
You had to remember exactly what you ate throughout the day, write it down somewhere, and then crunch all the numbers.
Not to mention the difficulty of figuring out the nutrient content of everything that you ate.
However, in recent years, with the proliferation of smartphones, logging has become much, much easier.
These days, you can log your food on any number of smartphone apps and be done with it.
Once you’re familiar with the process, this can be done in 10 minutes a day or less.
The pros of logging your food
- Highly effective: If you log your food accurately, and stick to your calorie and macro targets, you should have consistently great results.
- No foods are off limits: Logging allows you to be incredibly flexible with your diet. You’ll be able to eat all the foods you love while still making fantastic progress.
- Maximum flexibility: When you understand how to log properly, you’ll find it much easier to adapt to different eating situations while still maintaining your diet.
- Easy to make adjustments: With a logging-based approach, it becomes simple to fine-tune your diet as you make progress and your goals change. The includes adjusting calories up or down, and changing your macronutrient ratios.
- Accountability: When you log your foods, you create a written record of what you eat. This does wonders to reinforce positive eating habits, and dissuade you from making bad choices.
- Improved understanding of nutrition: Compared to the other approaches, logging your food is the one that will teach you the most about how nutrition really works, reducing frustration and ultimately giving you more control.
The cons of logging your food
- Learning curve: Of the 3 main approaches, logging undoubtedly has the steepest learning curve, requiring you to learn about food composition and how to estimate portions.
- Requires considerable attention to detail: Logging properly can be fairly nuanced, and requires you to really be aware of exactly what you eat and note it down accordingly.
Which Diet Approach Is Right For You?
At Lean Muscle Project, we strongly believe that the best diet for you is the one that you will follow.
Yes, dietary compliance is probably the most important factor that will determine your success, considerably more so than the specific diet that you choose.
That being said, I personally think that logging is the way to go if you’re serious about building muscle and losing fat – but also want a diet that is flexible and that doesn’t feel restrictive.
It is what I recommend for many of my clients, and is what I personally follow.
From a trainer’s perspective, logging provides a lot more data about what the client is eating than rule-based approaches, and is much more sustainable than monotonous meal plans.
Further, logging can truly feel like dietary salvation if you’ve been used to restrictive diets.
You get to eat foods you like, frequently, and still lose weight and build muscle.
And with smartphones now making logging much less annoying to do, I would strongly suggest giving it a shot if you’re looking for a sense of dietary direction.