The Top 8 Meathead Mistakes of Dieting

Avoid making these common errors and there’s nothing stopping you from achieving the lean physique you want.
First of all, I know, this isn’t the first “dieting mistakes” article, but I’m going to make this one a little different by doing two things: First, I’m going to breeze through all the obvious stuff in about 50 words at the beginning so you don’t start glazing over and turn the page and second, I’m going to look at the “real life” stuff that actually foils people’s efforts and look at a few rarely considered tips and tricks to help you avoid getting derailed from finally getting that six-pack you’ve been craving.

The Basics
Alright, here’s the “duh” bit that I hope everyone is already doing: You want to keep your protein high, start eliminating sugars, high-GI carbs, and (depending upon the type of diet you’re currently on) fats. Try to get over half of your carbs from low-GI carbs and most of your fats from “healthy” fats. And finally, it’s not essential, but more and smaller meals and snacks (four to six per day) may work better for some people. However, lately, this “pillar” of dieting success has been legitimately challenged (I don’t mind admitting that I’ve recommended it myself for most of my career, as the research used to slightly favour it as a successful meal frequency strategy).

Now for the important stuff. The following are the habits and practices that I believe are most crucial to actually achieving lean, defined abs.

1. Failure to Plan!
I know this one sounds somewhat obvious, but it’s the number one thing that determines ultimate success. Unless you have very fortunate genetics, you absolutely must take some time out, one or two days per week, in which you cook and prepare food for that week. Not just that, you must also decide, based upon last week’s success (or lack thereof) if and when you’re going to have a cheat (or “reward” or “carb up”) meal(s). So find an hour or two, once or twice per week, to cook up the correct amount of food that fits your goals and make accommodation for any travel, meetings and/or social events. Buy snacks and supplements that fit in with your routine. Remember, if you want a six-pack and you’re thinking you don’t have time to prepare food, the solution is simple: Skip your next workout and cook. It’s a total no-brainer: Skipping one workout is unlikely to have any effect on your body composition, but a week of unplanned eating certainly will!

2. Going Too Hardcore for Too Long
Some people cut their calorie intake for too long. Eventually, you need to re-feed and get those calories up. Dieting for too long may lead to greater reductions in your metabolic rate, and these reductions can persist long after you’ve gone back to eating normally again.

Many scientific papers on the metabolic response to dieting have been written, but I first became convinced by studies conducted by the infamous Dr. Abdul Dulloo in the 1990s, who got the idea by studying the effects of starvation from wartime studies. I then read a study on participants of the Biosphere 2 experiment in 2000. This was a study on people who were confined in what was basically a huge greenhouse and had to grow all of their own food. It turned out they couldn’t grow enough and they lost 15 percent of their body weight over two years but ate really nutrient-rich diets. When they got out, their metabolisms were considerably slower and virtually all the weight they gained back over the next six months was fat and their metabolisms still hadn’t returned to normal—they had sustained the dreaded “metabolic damage” (better described as “metabolic adaptation”). Dr. Dulloo later concluded that this decrease in metabolism was primarily from “adaptive thermogenesis” (burning off less fuel from food as heat). Now, of course, in these experiments, subjects didn’t eat high-protein diets or lift heavy weights, but we can presume from subsequent studies that metabolism is slowed in bodybuilders who diet too long also.

Research indicates that over half of people suffer significant reductions in metabolic rate when they diet. Of course, everyone’s body will sense a lack of calories and become more efficient. This is the “adaptive thermogenesis” that Dr. Dulloo referred to. This process causes your “resting energy expenditure” (REE) to be reduced and you hold onto more calories than prior to dieting. In my work with FitnessGenes, we came across one gene called ADRB2, a version of which causes the body to have a stronger adaptive thermogenesis response. Several other genes are involved in this process too.

So for those who are susceptible to larger reductions in metabolic rate, avoiding long-term calorie deficits and taking your calorie intake back up after eight to twelve weeks of dieting may avoid the body going into starvation mode and can help minimize adaptive thermogenesis. For these individuals, it’s also especially important to eat at least 2.2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight.

3. Not Monitoring Progress
Virtually all successful bodybuilders and fitness athletes (and virtually all successful people in any field of endeavour) consistently measure their progress so they can determine what’s working and what’s not. This is really based upon the irrefutable concept that if you keep doing the same things that aren’t working, then you’ll keep getting the same results. One thing that is completely misunderstood, even by many knowledgeable nutritionists and dieticians, is that as you diet, your body changes. I don’t mean just your body fat levels and your metabolism. I mean all of your major hormones adjust and reset themselves, and this changes the way you store calories, burn calories, your appetite, your gut’s reaction to meals, etc. You can’t just keep your calorie and macro ratios the same throughout a diet; you have to monitor and adjust. It’s time to get on the scale, get out the tape measure, and take a progress pic first thing in the morning on the same day of the week every week. Then, if you’ve lost too much, you can add some calories back in and if you’ve lost too little, you have to remove some.

4. Weighing Yourself at Different Times of the Day
This is just a little extension of the last mistake. Always weigh yourself at the same time of day, ideally in the morning after using the toilet. A person’s weight can change up to five or more pounds over the course of a day. With dieting and hydration manipulation, this can double or even triple. So if you weigh yourself on a Wednesday night and then again on a Monday morning, you’re going to be recording numbers that have little bearing on whether your average weight has changed. Weekends and Mondays are particularly bad because most people eat (and especially drink) differently on weekends. Stick with a weekday morning between Tuesday and Friday.

5. Not Timing Your Carb Intake
A lot of “coaches” and “experts” these days say it doesn’t matter when you eat your carbs or that it doesn’t matter if you eat them just before exercise or at night. I strongly disagree. Carbs are best consumed when insulin function is best and/or when glycogen levels are lowest (and those two events usually coincide) or to improve exercise performance. Eat them first thing in the morning, right after training or about five hours before training (which is the best time to eat them to make them available in muscle tissue to support the fuel needs of short or medium duration, intense exercise). You don’t want carbs, your body’s most readily useable fuel, coursing through your system in large amounts just before a workout because this means your body would have little reason to try to access stored body fat during exercise and it’s the carbs you’ve put in the tank several hours before the workout that are most available during training.

6. Letting Yourself Get Hungry
Let me start by saying that yes, some people are almost oblivious to hunger. They can miss a meal or go five hours without eating during a pre-contest diet and they just plough on and eat their meat and veg in an orderly fashion at the next meal. However, most people aren’t wired that way—hunger can have a very powerful effect on our psyche. Most episodes of people falling off their diets are because of hunger, so this is where the four to six meals a day thing comes in. It’s not so much that it actually burns more fat or helps you hold onto more muscle. Both of those contentions are debatable, and you can actually argue six meals a day is too many for maximum daily muscle protein synthesis (but that’s another article). The main advantage to eating often is that you never have an uncontrollable hunger spell and thus you avoid temptation. This is also one of the main advantages to eating high-protein and low GI—it controls appetite!

7. Eating Large Meals
Okay, I can’t prove this one but the growth of the size of cups, plates, bowls, serving sizes, skipping meals and eating fewer, larger meals sure seems to be strongly associated with the obesity crisis in the Western world. Larger meals tend to create greater fluctuations in insulin, blood sugar and therefore probably appetite and they stretch the stomach so as to seemingly encourage a subsequent bout of overeating. A well-known characteristic of obesity is distended stomach, and when that stomach is made smaller through surgical or other interventions, very significant weight loss almost always ensues. It’s okay to have a few feasts here and there, but keep most of your meals from getting too out of hand!

8. Not Having Cheat Meals
Right, first off, some people don’t like the word “cheat” so call it what you will—a “reward,” a “carb up”—whatever. Regardless of what you call it, I recommend that most people do it. Of course, some people are better off just sticking to the program and not getting a taste of “forbidden” foods, lest they go off on a four-day eating binge, but the risk of not cheating is that you feel like you’re missing out and there’s never anything to look forward to. So the first advantage of strategic cheat meals is that when your willpower flags and you ask yourself if all this dieting is really worth it, you can focus on your next scheduled cheat meal and see some light at the end of the tunnel. The other advantage is that because your glycogen stores are chronically low when dieting, you can eat a bunch of dirty carbs and they won’t cause you to store fat and they may help contribute to your body’s perception that it’s actually not starving. You see, the average reasonably muscular man who exercises hard and often can probably carry at least 500 grams of sugar in his body in the form of glycogen and even without exercising, studies suggest it takes an intake of about 500 grams of carbs to cause the conversion of some of those carbs into fat. So as long as you don’t overdo the amount or duration of your cheat (carb up), you won’t gain any fat from doing so!

Conclusion
So there you have it, the top eight meathead mistakes of dieting. Avoid these common pitfalls and you will be better able to stay on track and achieve that lean physique you crave rather than sabotaging yourself. At Muscle Insider we always advocate to train smart. The same goes for nutrition. You need to always eat smart. It’s been said that bodybuilding is 80 percent nutrition and only 20 percent training. Make of those percentages what you will, but suffice to say, nutrition is key when it comes to reaching your physique goals.