Food and Nutrition

The Food and Nutrition Category deals mostly with the efficiency and improvement of nutrition, again with the goal of maximizing personal fitness.

  • Macronutrients
  • Micronutrients
  • Human metabolism
  • Appetite and hunger-related endocrinology
  • Recipes
  • Shopping lists and specific products to buy
  • Etc.

Short-term braindump

Cautionary note

Despite me constantly going on about how everything ought to be backed up by methodologically-sound, double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted by unbiased researchers, the writing here isn’t yet written with that level of justification cited.

Presently, this writing is basically just my thoughts. I’ve read research on things (at least some), so most of the stuff here isn’t just my opinion, but everything is still a bit loosey-goosey. You have been warned.

Hopefully I can make the writing more rigorous with time.

Why is there so much disagreement and lack of consensus in the area of nutrition?

The short answer is because doing science properly requires doing controlled experiments, and it is very difficult to run controlled experiments where you as the experimenter completely determine absolutely everything study participants eat.

For better or worse, some of the better data we have for nutritional studies comes from what are essentially captive populations: prisoners, people in mental health wards in hospitals, and so forth. Diet can actually be more tightly controlled in these circumstances.

All other (non-tightly-controlled) data is of very limited value in drawing hard conclusions. Observational data and retrospective studies do not have the power to eliminate lurking variables and make determinations that can be uncritically relied on.

For example, consider the fact that higher blood cholesterol levels correlate with heart disease. You can observe this consistently without actually being able to say much of anything at all about the relationship between serum cholesterol and heart disease. Do high levels of serum cholesterol cause heart disease? Does heart disease cause high levels of serum cholesterol? Are they both caused by some third variable?

To my incredulity, some people try to completely outlaw dietary cholesterol solely on the basis of what I have mentioned above. To be able to say something like “avoiding dietary cholesterol is heart-healthy and helps you avoid heart disease!”, not only would you first have to prove experimentally that higher levels of dietary cholesterol increase levels of serum cholesterol, you would also have to prove experimentally that higher levels of serum cholesterol are an influential causal agent in heart disease (contrast this with the complex multifactorial models usually put forward in describing the etiology of heart disease). Without experimental evidence in hand for both of these things, the statement could be true or false, but we can’t say either way dogmatically. (At least not if we adopt a proper “data first” approach).

What I am talking about here holds for quite a bit of all nutrition advice out there. Is any given claim true or not? Well, if we don’t have controlled experimental science that can be weighed in the matter, what people should say is that it is impossible to know for sure. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the reality of this situation, and others even purposefully spout dubious claims (claims without any rigorous evidence to them) with an air of absolute certainty to increase their fame and sell their products. After all, who wants to buy a nutrition supplement that might possibly mildly assist in weight loss (*claims not yet verified by science)? Wouldn’t you rather buy “Ultra effective weight loss supplement 1000™ – shred belly fat in a week! Used by XYZ famous ultra-fit celebrities!”? (Ripped supermodels endorsing weight loss products that they take, if they do in fact take them outside of the commercial, would be a clear case of correlation ≠ causation).

Decision paralysis

I personally stopped trying to keep track of all the various different diets and approaches that exist some time ago. Some come and go in time, and others make the rounds at one point and subsequently fall out of favor, only to resurface years later.

The more I have looked into these things, the more I have become convinced that many people end up trampling all over the good in pursuit of the perfect. Each new diet or supplement promises to be “the best.” Of course they can’t all be the best, but people are kept in such a constant state of uncertainty about things that they just throw up their hands and feel like if nothing is certain anyway, might as well have some deep-fried Oreos. (I’m obviously exaggerating the response here, but you get the idea).

This skepticism and disillusionment is made all the worse when scholarly consensus flip-flops back and forth on issues. Are egg yolks good for you or bad for you? How about butter:

  1. Oh, I see, we should use margarine instead of butter?
  2. Wait, what do you mean hydrogenated vegetable oils in margarine are bad for us – you just said butter was bad?
  3. OK, so we should avoid anything with saturated fat – so both butter and margarine?
  4. But those guys over there are saying that it’s the Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio that’s important, so monounsaturated and saturated fats are actually OK to eat, but not those inflammatory Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats? We’re back to butter is OK?
  5. Hold up, now you’re saying we definitely should be eating grass-fed butter because of the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)?

…You get the idea.

Give up on figuring it all out completely, and just start kicking the absolute worst habits to the curb while adopting the ones with the most bang for your buck

What is interesting in the field of nutrition is that almost everyone who goes on any diet loses weight if they stick with it consistently. It doesn’t matter if you do Keto, Paleo, Mediterranean, Atkins, Raw Food, or whatever else.

This adds to the great amount of confusion concerning nutrition. Published scientific research can be cited by adherents of most mainstream diets that points to the diet’s general efficacy. (Although see the above comments about how rare good, methodologically-sound studies actually are).

See, the thing is, the vast majority of diets have a few things in common:

  1. They cut out most processed foods
  2. They cut out most added sugar (particularly the worst offenders like candy, cake, soda, etc.)
  3. They encourage people to eat lots of vegetables

I kid you not, if you do these three things alone (and you actually do them – no cheating), you can eat whatever combination of macros you want until you feel full, and you’ll still probably lose lots of weight. Most other stuff is just noise.

If you take nothing else out of this page, make these three rules your mantra. I don’t care if you do high-fat low-carb Paleo or high-carb low-fat oatmeal-at-every-meal, if you follow the three rules, you will make progress.

Why cut out processed foods?

So what’s wrong with the cup MSG seasoned with noodles and the family-size bags of Doritos? The TL;DR is that they short-circuit our satiation mechanisms by artificially increasing the palatability of foods, such that we keep eating when we otherwise wouldn’t.

In other words, they aren’t bad because they cause cancer or whatever (although I’m willing to go with the general principle that lab chemicals probably aren’t as good for us as stuff grown in fields), they are bad for us because they highly incentivize overeating. Speaking from personal experience, it’s easy to eat an entire bag of chips or an entire tub of ice cream, even though you only really metabolically need a quarter of the calories.

Your digestive system might be sending “OK, chill bro, that’s enough” signals to your brain, but your brain is too busy getting high off the dopamine rush from foods with artificially enhanced flavors to care. Then you end up eating 1,000 more calories than you need that day. Repeat this seven times and now you’ve gained two pounds of body fat, body fat that then trolls you by making you feel hungrier all the time and less full once you’ve eaten what you need. Then the vicious cycle repeats itself.

Oh, and don’t forget that while you were busy munching on all the artificial goodness, now normal healthy foods taste like cardboard. This “dulling” effect is caused by literally the exact same neural pathways that make heroin addicts find normal life activities drab and grey, and make porn addicts find 3D women boring and plain. Once you’ve calibrated that needle someplace it shouldn’t be, your brain has rewired itself to set you up for failure. Bloody dopamine.

The really unfortunate thing about these addiction pathways is that once you’ve fed them, they never really go away completely. Even if your alcoholic friend goes cold-turkey and never touches a drop of the stuff for 10 years, the second he lets his iron resolve slip and gets really hammered a couple times, the negative brain wiring comes roaring back (not at full force after 10 years, mind you, but still in strong enough proportion to be seriously problematic). It’s pretty darn unfair – the problematic brain wiring is built more-or-less overnight, but won’t fully go away even after years of steel-laced control and abstinence.

To use an analogy, addiction pathways are like a beast that can hibernate. The more you feed the pathways, the bigger the beast gets. If you start starving the beast, he’ll just go into hibernation. He’ll lose some weight, sure, but he doesn’t go away completely. Ever.

Combine all this food addiction/dopamine stuff with an ever-increasing sedentary lifestyle and the large amounts of added sugar that modern food corporations put in everything to increase palatability (see below), and suddenly the obesity statistics plaguing the developed world aren’t so mysterious anymore.

By the way, I don’t advocate swinging so far the other way that you purposefully try to make food as unpalatable as possible. Optimum nutrition is not strictly about eating as little as possible. In fact, the best target long term (once you’ve reached your desired weight) is one in which the calories you consume exactly balance those that your body burns. The question thus becomes whether or not it is possible to do this while enjoying unprocessed (non-heroin-pathway) foods cooked in ways you enjoy? The answer is mostly yes. As long as you don’t have things massively overriding your body’s natural mechanisms to signal fullness, you’ll be fine. Nonetheless, it is true that it is easier to go overboard on air-fried chicken cooked to a crisp than bland boiled chicken, just for example. What has worked for me is just being mindful (although not paranoid) about portion sizes, and always eating lots of vegetables, which we’ll get to below. As long as you’re willing to eat a head of broccoli with every meal, even if you’re not 100% “optimal”, you’ll still be very much in the “making good progress zone.” And the really key part of this is that I can keep up this “making good progress zone” eating pattern indefinitely with almost zero effort (because I actually like the close-to-ideal-though-not-completely-ideal meals that I eat), which is something I wouldn’t be able to say if I were to have boiled chicken instead of air-fried chicken every day.

As with exercise, if you maintain a 200 calorie deficit every day, consistently, that is going to be better than a 300 calorie deficit most days with some binge-eating sprinkled in because you’re unhappy and overly depriving yourself.

Why cut out added sugar?

Short answer: Foods that have a lot of sugar have a disproportionate glycemic impact, meaning that they spike blood glucose levels, spike insulin levels (to get the blood glucose down), and lead to problematic peaks and valleys in energy levels and hunger.

Spiking insulin on the regular causes insulin-resistance, which is a decidedly bad thing. It’s one of the primary measures for so-called “metabolic syndrome” (the dark complex of health disorders that revolve around poor diet and lifestyle choices: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, otherwise-preventable strokes, etc.). Taken together, consequences of metabolic syndrome (heart disease and diabetes, e.g.) kill more people in industrialized countries than anything else (including car accidents and cancer). Cancer is also usually decidedly worse in people with underlying health conditions in this area, but there are plenty of variables that may be lurking. (There have been some pretty interesting studies about how low-sugar diets are superior for cancer outcomes, however. Apparently cancer cells like sugar).

Aside from the potential health problems relating to overdoing insulin, relying on sugars (contrast complex carbs) for energy causes huge variances in energy and hunger, leading to binge-eating. When you are on a sugar-laden diet, you are always running on the hamster wheel of eat sugar -> short term energy -> get tired, hungry, and grumpy -> need to eat more sugar -> repeat.

High levels of sugars do occur in some natural foods too, particularly fruits. I’ve always been amused by the fact that the nutrition community gives sugary fruits a pass. They shouldn’t. The fiber in fruits does reduce their overall glycemic impact, but guess what? Not eating fruits at all is still better. By a a lot. “Eat lots of fruits and vegetables” can be better worded as “Eat lots of vegetables, and then more vegetables.” (Berries are somewhat of an exception to this. Berries have higher nutritional and antioxidant value and usually have more fiber than other commonly-consumed fruit, so flunk the cost-benefit analysis much less badly).

Rant against fruity double standards aside, the biggest problems with sugar come from foods that add loads of it with no fiber whatsoever. If fruit is bad, these things are positively awful. I’m talking soda, chocolate, and so forth. Without fiber to temper the glycemic response, these things go straight into your bloodstream, trigger the mighty insulin response, and get you running on the aforementioned hamster wheel. You have now been set up for failure.

If it seems to you like staying away from added sugar falls under the umbrella of avoiding processed foods you would mostly be right. In fact, one of the main ways that food companies twist our taste buds unto their bottom lines is to add sugar to everything to make things taste better. Thus we have a sugar arms race in things like ketchup, peanut butter, and other such products that did not used to be controlled by our sugar overlords. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the corporate-high-fructose-corn-syrup complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist…” Oh wait, kinda misquoted that one…

With this being said, there is a curiously large number of people on the internet pushing “natural” diets (i.e., those free from processed foods from our sugar-adding corporate friends) that include large amounts of sugar. Your body doesn’t care if the sugar you shovel into it comes from the purest sustainable sugar cane plantation surrounding some monastery high in the sacred mountains or from some mega-corporation’s factory of test-tubes. There is little actual science to say something like “raw unfiltered honey is basically nectar and ambrosia, but high fructose corn syrup is basically poison.” I’m willing to entertain the idea that perhaps the former is a bit healthier than the latter. Let’s be generous and say it’s 10 full percentage points better. That’s still like saying we should eat more Lead because it kills you in 10 years instead of Arsenic’s 5. Woohoo! Go Lead!

Oh, and what about juicing? Here, buy our good-looking machine that has as its sole purpose the removing of fiber, the only thing slowing down digestion of the input foods so that they aren’t metabolized like cubes of granulated sugar. That’ll be $400 please!

Why eat lots of vegetables?

Vegetables mostly contain three things: water, fiber, and protein. They also have the highest nutrient densities out of any general class of food.

If you are familiar with nutrition labels, you probably know that Fat has 9 KCal/g, Carbs have 4 KCal/g, and Protein has 4 KCal/g. These numbers are actually not ideal in terms of helping consumers make informed health decisions, because they represent how many calories you get by burning the food in a bomb calorimeter. What it would be much more useful for labels to show is the weighted statistical average of how many calories a macronutrient yields net – after being digested in a living, breathing human being.

It so happens that our bodies have to spend energy to digest food. You can think of this as analogous to chemistry’s activation energy (digestion is largely a chemical process, after all). In nutritional science, this is given a name of its own: the thermic effect of food (TEF), also known as dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT) or Specific Dynamic Action (SDA). (Don’t ask me why there are so many names for it. I don’t know either).

Not all macros are processed by our bodies the same – not even close. It costs our bodies a much higher proportional amount of the energy protein contains to digest it than with carbs and especially fat. There are some circumstances when TEF is higher for carbs (essentially when our body has saturated muscle glycogen and doesn’t “need” more carbs to shift into deficiencies that exist), but the TEF for protein is always noticeably higher. While it can vary based on a number of things, the high amount of energy needed to digest protein means that you actually only net about 3 KCal/g of protein, vs. 4 for carbs and 9 (!) for fats. Protein is just straight up better.

Now, fiber and water are even better than protein. Water is completely non-caloric, and no matter what kind of fiber, fiber is (indirectly) metabolized at rates well under protein’s ~3 KCal/g. (Not all fiber is completely non-caloric, contrary to popular belief. Insoluble fiber is, but not soluble fiber, which feeds the bacteria in our guts, who then share some of the energy proceeds with us, their human hosts. Yum!).

Why does all this matter? Here’s the intuitive argument:

  • Some amount of (hormone-controlled) satiation and satiety are regulated by stimulating our tastebuds, the process of chewing, and the amount of stomach distention caused by food volume. This would suggest that foods that have more fiber and protein (which yield many less calories net while still getting tasted, chewed, and taking up space) will help you “feel full” while actually netting less overall calories – exactly the situation we want.
  • Incidentally, the same argument can be applied for non-sugar carbs that are metabolized at 4 KCal/g. Protein and fiber are better, but these carbs are still quite a bit better under this line of thinking than fat. More food eaten (by weight and volume) but less calories net? Count me in.
  • You might wonder: Can I just drink a bunch of water to fill my stomach and then not feel hungry? Unfortunately, clinical evidence for this working is lacking. However, interestingly, eating water does seem to actually work some. What does that mean? That means that eating foods naturally high in water (fruits, vegetables, soups that you eat one spoonful at a time rather than drink) help you feel full with low calories, since water is not itself caloric. The mechanism for this probably has less to do with the hormonal effects controlled by changes in stomach volume, and more to do with the hormonal effects controlled by stimulating tastebuds (over time) and the process of chewing.

A couple more observations:

  • Aside from requiring more tasting and chewing and taking up more stomach space inherently (triggering all the hormonal pathways associated with these things) while netting less overall calories, protein and fiber are also said to “take a long time” to digest. That’s a bit hand-wavy, but the general statement holds true. Satiety levels are higher for longer when you eat lots of protein and fiber because they stay in your digestive system longer overall. This makes it easier to avoid eating more because you experience fewer hunger pangs over time, and therefore makes operating at a calorie deficit much easier in practice (because you are not always walking around starving). Since losing weight is primarily about successfully maintaining a calorie-deficit long-term, you can see how things come together.
  • Drinking calories is worse than eating them, as some part of us feeling full is controlled by the processes of tasting (over time) and chewing, as above. Liquid calories also tend to have less fiber proportionally than solid foods, which is disadvantageous for all the reasons we have been talking about.
  • Taking your time to eat gives your body/the hunger hormones time to catch up. This perhaps also helps explain in part why drinking calories is bad, as it is easy to drink lots of calories rapidly. I got in the habit of scarfing food down in college, but taking your time to thoroughly chew and savor your food will make you feel more full… with no extra calories! The mechanism for this is as follows: by eating more slowly and savoring your food, you give your endocrine system more time to receive and process the satiation signals we have been discussing (the tasting/chewing/stomach volume signals telling your body “I do not desire to eat more food now – I feel full”), and therefore stop eating sooner (and thus consume less overall calories) than if you ate faster and got ahead of the hormone signaling (i.e., eating food that your body was going to say that you didn’t need, but never got the chance to).

Okay, so back to why vegetables – why is eating lots of vegetables worth setting in stone as one of the big three rules? A couple reasons:

  • Since vegetables (and I suppose I should be more specific and say the hyper-healthy vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and kale/spinach/other dark leafy greens) are mostly fiber and water (with some protein as well), they are the best way to eat things to feel full while minimizing actual net calories. There are no foods better than them in this regard. Lean protein sources like chicken or turkey come in second, but it’s a distant second.
  • Further, they do all this while also being the most generally nutritious foods (in terms of vitamins and minerals) you can eat. You can’t get vitamin D, Omega-3’s, and fat-soluble vitamins like A and K from vegetables, but they cover basically everything else, including vitamin C. (You can get a good bit of calcium from vegetables, but consuming dairy products is probably still a good idea, if you can digest them and don’t have ethical qualms).

Out of all foods then, vegetables give you by far the most bang for your buck. This is why if you eat lots of them and make them a reasonably high proportion of your diet, you will inevitably be healthier, no matter what else you eat.

If you’ve ever wondered “what are the mechanisms by which vegetables are healthy?”, hopefully now you know.

Very high protein diets

Astute readers will here be wondering “But you spent so much time talking up all the advantages of protein in addition to fiber. Doesn’t this mean we should make eating lots of protein be rule number four?”

You would not be wrong in asking this, and in fact I do personally favor very high protein diets based on all the discussion above. I like the fact that I understand the mechanisms in our body by which protein nets less calories, helps you feel more full for a longer time, and makes sustaining a calorie deficit easier.

There are two big reasons for me not mandating it in the same way as the other three rules mentioned above:

  • Eating very high protein diets is far, far more restrictive than eating diets where you simply avoid processed food, avoid sugar, and eat lots of vegetables. An enormous part of diet success is making diets personally sustainable. All of the science in the world doesn’t matter if practical outcomes are poor because people have trouble sticking with an eating plan. For people that can handle a much more restrictive diet, I would totally push eating 50-60% of all calories as protein. However, I hesitate to do it globally because it might cause people to fall off the boat more, and that’s worse than the beginning state.
  • I have full belief in the three rules I have set down thus far. As in willing to stake my life on them. While everything I have read about metabolism and hunger endocrinology seems to point to very high protein diets being superior for many reasons (and I’m not the only one or the first one or the smartest one to come to this conclusion – I got some of my ideas from The Leangains Method, for example, among other online sources), it’s not something I have quite as much confidence in. Part of it is that I am a Software Engineer by profession, and am not so arrogant that I feel confident shouting from the rooftops that most mainstream people in nutrition have no idea what they are talking about and have been giving decidedly suboptimal advice for decades. At the same time, I haven’t ever come across anything that has given me even a moment of pause in terms of my conclusions or approach. Part of the problem is that I haven’t been able to find any suitable studies where the diet under examination was one consisting of tons of dairy proteins, tons of lean meats, tons of vegetables, and high-protein carb sources (whole wheat, beans, lentils) eaten in moderation, such that overall protein consumption borders on 60% of calories consumed, with fiber consumption also being sky-high and fat consumption being quite low. There are diets relatively higher in protein (Atkins, Paleo), but they tend to lack the overwhelming amount of vegetables and fiber that I advocate, along with having too high a percentage of overall calories coming from fat. So I just can’t know for sure that I’m right, even if everything I say makes excellent intuitive sense and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get around the biological mechanisms that cause protein to make us feel full longer while netting less calories due to dietary induced thermogenesis.

At any rate, the upshot of all this is that if you are interested in what I really believe (N=1, my personal opinion) and do myself, you can have a look at my concrete meal plans below. If not, I am confident that following the three rules I have already put forth will lead to favorable outcomes no matter what combination of macros you choose to follow.

Types of protein

Protein is composed of building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can synthesize some amino acids from others. The ones our bodies cannot synthesize are called Essential Amino Acids (EAAs). We have to get these in our diets.

If you consume animal proteins (meat and fish), eggs, and dairy, you really don’t have to worry about protein composition too much, as you’ll be getting plenty of EAAs. Getting enough protein in well-balanced amino acid proportions is more an issue for vegans who don’t consume meat/fish, eggs, or dairy. These folks have to find balanced plant-based protein sources with good bioavailability. Lentils, beans, quinoa, edamame, and so on are all good options for them to mix and match from.

Some amino acids are more anabolic than others: they stimulate muscle growth more. In particular, there are the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), which are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Leucine in particular has an outsized impact in controlling muscle anabolism (measured in terms of muscle protein synthesis, at any rate). See here, for example. If you are doing strength training and trying to build muscle, you need to make sure you are getting high quantities of BCAAs in your diet to ensure optimal muscle growth.

Building muscle on a calorie deficit

I think diminishing returns probably make supplementing just BCAAs a waste of money: once you get “enough” BCAAs, overall anabolism depends more on overall protein intake than BCAA intake. At least that is my understanding. The study linked above talks about this some.

One important consideration that I have not touched on yet is the idea of building muscle on a calorie deficit. If your end goal is just building muscle (and you don’t care about anything else), then you should most assuredly not being lifting on a calorie deficit. Eating a large calorie surplus is the best way to ensure maximum muscle growth.

This is because anabolism is stoked by eating a calorie surplus. The opposite of anabolism – catabolism, or muscle-breakdown – is the product of calorie deficits. People who face long-term foot shortages become emaciated as their bodies break down all of their muscle for energy. Maintaining a less drastic calorie deficit will obviously not have nearly as extreme an impact, but the general idea holds. Being on a calorie deficit doesn’t do great things to overall muscle mass.

See, the problem is, sustaining a calorie deficit is the key component of weight loss. We have two objectives warring here. For this reason, many trainers don’t recommend trying to combine the concepts at all. In fact, they typically recommend periods of “bulking” (focusing only on muscle anabolism = eating a calorie surplus) followed by periods of “cutting” (focusing only on fat burning = eating a calorie deficit). The question is thus whether this completely separate approach is the only workable one, or whether it is somehow possible to build muscle while simultaneously burning fat, and not crippling either outcome substantially?

Normally, no, the clashing objectives don’t mix well at all. But if you eat tons of protein, which is the most muscle-protective and anabolic macro by far, you start being able to get away with things more. Sustaining a calorie deficit while having 60% or so of your calories come from protein is still certainly not ideal for maximum muscle growth, but it’s not terribly unfavorable in terms of muscle growth either (unlike normal calorie deficits).

As a person who was always more interested in being lean than huge, I very much like the process of gaining muscle without also having to gain fat in the process. In the months that I have been lifting consistently on a high-protein-but-calorie-deficit diet, I have been able to literally watch my muscles grow while also seeing fat disappear. And because I always feel full on my high-protein high-fiber diet, I can keep up these circumstances indefinitely without breaking much of a sweat. I wouldn’t say that the changes in my body composition have been particularly rapid (at time of writing, they have been accumulating now over a period of 5 months, maybe), but I am confident that I can just keep on seeing the positive changes pile up over time because this is not something that is so hard that I can only keep it up temporarily. I can do it for the rest of my life without that much bother.

Ultimately, I don’t know if my approach is better than the constant cycles of bulking and cutting. Maybe those folks end up building more muscle and burning more fat in less time by tailoring the diet they eat in any given time period to their current goal. However, it also wouldn’t surprise me if the gaining-muscle-only (rather than muscle-and-fat) approach (compare “Leangains” – it’s where that methodology got its name) ends up more efficient in the long run. So long as you eat enough protein that building muscle on your calorie deficit is not severely compromised, then you kind of get to have your cake and eat it too. Even if the cake is a bit on the anemic side.

An emergent benefit of doing things the same way all the time rather than bulking then cutting is that you only ever have to worry about one set of diet targets, which simplifies cooking and food preparation greatly, since things are always the same.

What I do

I do the bulk of my cooking on Sundays. I prefer a modular approach: I cook and then freeze chicken, peppers, and onions, and then add them to various dishes over the course of the week.

Here in South Georgia, I shop mostly at Kroger, but buy low-fat cheese from Publix. I’ll typically buy 6+ bags of low-fat shredded mozzarella and 2+ packs of low-fat sliced swiss when I go to Publix, so that I don’t have to go very often. (The extra cheese keeps plenty fine for an extended period of time in the fridge).

Intermittent fasting

See here for a basic introduction to intermittent fasting. The TL;DR of why I do it is because it is objectively easier to skip a meal in a fasted state, and therefore easier to consume less calories overall. (Fasting is also thought to inhibit mTor, inhibit IGF-1 expression, and perhaps help trigger autophagy in cells, with this last thing thought to extend lifespan, although we mostly only have animal studies on such at present. The science of fasting is definitely in its infancy at present. If you’re interested, you might start here).

Once your body has switched into ketogenesis from an overnight fast, it becomes pretty trivial to skip breakfast without getting wracked by hunger pangs. Breakfast is the meal skipped since it allows you to fast overnight (something you do anyway), which involves having to stave off hunger to a much lower degree than trying to skip lunch or dinner.

I follow strict 16/8 intermittent fasting (that is, fast for 16 hours every day, and eat all my calories in an 8 hour window). I start eating at 11:30 AM with my first snack of the day (a PB&J sandwich – see below), and stop eating at 7:30 PM with my last brownie/protein shake for the day.

Since losing weight is all about maintaining a calorie deficit long-term, and fasting makes it easier to eat less calories without getting hammered by hunger, I consider it a core part of my diet strategy.

Grocery shopping

I go grocery shopping on Sunday afternoons (I do weekend food prep before Sunday dinner) and Wednesday nights (Wednesday dinner is the last meal to fall under Sunday food prep). This balances 7 meals on both grocery runs:

  • Sunday grocery run: 1) Sunday dinner, 2) Monday lunch, 3) Monday Dinner, 4) Tuesday lunch, 5) Tuesday dinner, 6) Wednesday lunch, 7) Wednesday Dinner.
  • Wednesday grocery run: 1) Thursday lunch, 2) Thursday dinner, 3) Friday lunch, 4) Friday dinner, 5) Saturday lunch, 6) Saturday dinner, 7) Sunday lunch.

My every-week Sunday shopping list looks like this:

And my every-week Wednesday shopping list looks like this (just veggies):

Everything other than what is listed above I buy on Amazon when I need it. (Some of the regular stuff I have set up to automatically ship every month with Amazon’s Subscribe and Save, which saves a lot of money in the long-term. 15% off is nothing to sneeze at).

I’m not afraid of buying more than I need such that I always have a spare on hand for everything, since stuff keeps fine in the fridge. I just make sure I am always using the older stuff first.

Cooking in bulk on the weekend

You could hypothetically cook every day rather than just microwaving stuff you prepare in bulk on the weekend. I prefer the latter approach for two reasons:

  • Clumping preparation time lets you schedule something to do during the big block of cooking time (I prioritize catching up with friends and family on the phone during this time of 1-2 hours – something I’d be doing anyway). It is much less convenient to schedule something to multitask with during less-predictable blocks of 10-15 minutes.
  • Concentrating all the preparation at one time means you do dishes for food prep (the air fryer, bowls, pots, etc.) once a week rather than every day. This saves a pretty substantial amount of time in the long-term.

Here’s instructions to do bulk food prep how I do it:

  1. Follow the directions to make the chicken base that is the protein source for most full meals. I find if I buy two 5 pound packs of chicken breasts, it’s about 14 servings for me, but I eat ~150g of chicken per serving because I’m 6’5”, >200 pounds, and work out a lot. Most people can probably get away buying lower-weight packages (say two 4 pound packages, or whatever).
  2. Make a batch of the healthy fiber brownies. (12 brownies = 6 days worth. I don’t eat any brownies on Sunday since I don’t exercise on Sunday, meaning I don’t need as many calories).
  3. Make 7 pressure-cooker hard-boiled eggs. (One a day = 7 days).
  4. Wash and box 7 meals worth of vegetables (that is, one big box of spinach = 4 servings, 2 bunches of kale = 3 servings, and 7 medium-sized crowns of broccoli).
  5. Make low-calorie BBQ sauce if necessary.
  6. Make BBQ baked beans if necessary.
  7. Make whole wheat pasta if necessary.

I find that I don’t bother trying to measure quantities and such for the BBQ sauce, BBQ baked beans, and whole wheat pasta to make preparation for them always line up on weekends. None of these things require much hands-on time at all, so I just make them as needed (regardless of what day preparation happens to fall on).

I also wash and box 7 meals worth of veggies (#4 above) on Wednesday nights after I’ve gone grocery shopping.

Organizing things in fridge

I organize everything in my fridge with stacking plastic storage containers (the 5.6 x 6.7 x 3 ones). I’ve bought 4 sets of these, and from time to time have almost all of them in use. (Although I’ve broken a couple over the years due to dropping them).

Here’s some examples:

  • When I make the 2 pounds of the BBQ baked beans, that fills up 4 of these boxes in the fridge.
  • When I make 8 servings of whole wheat pasta, that fills up 4 of these boxes in the fridge.
  • 7 servings of broccoli fill up 3.5 of these boxes in the fridge.
  • 3 servings of kale fill up 3 of these boxes in the fridge.
  • Etc.

Having more smaller boxes makes it much easier to get portion sizes right. It’s much easier to accurately eyeball “½ a container” than “1/8 a container,” in other words.

Daily meal plans

This is what I do every day. No exceptions. Every once in a while (say once or twice every couple weeks) I have a cheat meal or two (usually ends up being pizza for me, if I don’t otherwise go out with friends).

For my steamed veggies, I typically have kale + broccoli for lunch and spinach + broccoli for dinner. I strongly recommend steaming them in the microwave in this airtight container (or some similar equivalent), as using an airtight container guarantees effective steaming every time.

In place of juice or soda, I use several squirts of the calorie-less MiO water flavoring at every meal proper (that is, lunch and dinner, but not snacks). Satisfies the sugary-drink cravings.

This daily food intake ends up being very high in protein (>50% total calories), very high in fiber, moderate in carbs, and very low in fat (and thus overall calories). Plus I actually like how everything tastes!

Packing my lunch

All the food except that in the 6:30 PM meal and 7:30 PM snack goes with me to work (at least on non-weekend days/days that I am not teleworking). Here’s how I pack things:

  • Lunch box: Amazon
  • Container for protein chocolate milk: Amazon for cup, Amazon for lid (Note: you get x2 small cups and x2 lids with the NutriBullet blender itself, so only order extras if you have multiple people packing shakes for lunch and need the spares). This cup + lid combo goes in one of the bottle-pockets on the sides of the lunchbox.
  • Container for ~2/3 of the main pasta dish: Amazon.
  • Container containing hard-boiled egg (to be eaten at lunch) and brownie (to be microwaved/eaten at 2:00 PM snack): Amazon. The egg goes on the smaller side.
  • Container containing ~1/3 of the main pasta dish and BBQ baked beans for afternoon snack at 3:30 PM: Amazon. The BBQ baked beans go on the smaller side.
  • Container for the PB&J sandwich: Amazon.

I always pack my lunch while standing around waiting for my dinner stuff to finish in the microwave. This is very time-efficient, and also means that 1) I can lick spoons and knives and such when preparing things rather than letting food go to waste (I wouldn’t in the morning since I’d break my fast), and 2) I don’t have to pack my lunch in the morning, so can just grab it out of the fridge and go. (More sleep – yay!). Note that I prepare my protein chocolate milk shake for the next day’s lunch at this time too, right alongside everything else (the main pasta dish, veggies, main pasta dish/baked beans, brownie/hard-boiled egg, and PB&J sandwich). I don’t put any water in with the veggies when packing them, but do that right before I steam them at work. (The veggies are packed raw and without water in the container, in other words).

I have a 16oz glass at my desk at work that I mix water and MiO in. My main water bottle is this 40oz one (I also use the grippy silicone base for it that makes it resistant to tipping over, and the paracord handle that makes it easy to carry). I’ll fill it all the way up when microwaving stuff for lunch, and then pour some of the water out into the glass to mix with MiO.

I actually do the same thing (pour water out of water bottle/mix with MiO in smaller glass) when eating dinner at home.

When I’m going to and from my desk at work to microwave things, I carry everything on a tray. Some coworkers have teased me about it (“what is this, a prison?”), but whatever. It’s very functional.


I dislike the taste of fish, so get Omega-3’s and vitamin D by daily supplement. In my opinion, the whole “getting nutrients in whole foods is way better than supplements!!!” thing is a classic case of people (even most researchers who should know better, unfortunately) conflating correlation with causation. Many people taking supplements are already unhealthy, making it appear like supplements lead to suboptimal health outcomes. If you are already healthy, I see no logical reason why getting Omega-3’s and vitamin D from a high-quality (non-oxidized-fat) supplement would be worse than eating fish (like canned sardines, say). Getting most nutrients from vegetables is preferential to multivitamins since vegetables also have lots of beneficial fiber, but fish has no such ancillary benefits. There is no biochemical mechanism by which supplements are inherently inferior as long as increased bioavailability of nutrients in whole foods (relating to cofactors and such) is small in overall magnitude, as it would seem to be in this particular case. (It is not negligible in all cases).

I take concentrated curcumin with piperine (piperine, aka black pepper extract, vastly improve bioavailability of curcuminoids) daily. It is one of the only supplements that actually has loads of good science behind it – to the point where it is thought to help protect against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, while also reducing inflammation, and vastly boosting the body’s antioxidant capacity.

I take approximately 5g of creatine monohydrate daily, mixing into my dinner water + MiO. Boosts the gains (and the brains, it turns out – see below).

I take 4 100mg caffeine/200mg L-theanine pills daily alongside my snacks/meals earlier in the day (that is, at 11:30 AM, 12:30 PM, 2:00 PM, and 3:30 PM). Caffeine has been extremely well-studied, and is a safe weight-loss supplement. (It functions in much the same way as other stimulants in terms of boosting calorie burning… like nicotine and meth but actually safe). It is habit-forming (you’ll get withdrawal headaches if you go off it), but 400mg/day is at or under the upper bound for daily consumption recommended by various agencies. Pregnant women probably shouldn’t have any caffeine, at least if you want to play things as safe as possible. If you don’t presently take any caffeine, work your way up too 400mg/day over a few weeks, otherwise you’ll be twitchy.

The L-theanine in the caffeine pills helps take away the jitters from the caffeine. Caffeine + L-theanine is the best-studied nootropic stack, with emergent cognitive benefits from the combination. For example:

Caffeine, L-theanine, and Creatine are the nootropics with the most science behind them. I happen to take Caffeine more for the metabolic boost and Creatine more for the increase in muscle synthesis, but the cognitive boosts coming from them are just additional icing on the cake.


Steamed vegetables


  • ~2.5 cups spinach or ~2.5 cups kale.
  • 1 medium-sized crown of broccoli, neither unduly large nor unduly small, broken into smallish pieces. I normally just tear the broccoli apart with my hands caveman-style, since it saves time relative to actually cutting it up with a knife.


  1. Put the leafy greens at the bottom of a snap-locking container (one that seals air-tight, which is much better when steaming things – I find that this one is exactly the right size for the servings I go with), and add the broccoli on top.
  2. Add some water to the container, but not too much. Just enough for the vegetables to steam properly.
  3. Snap the airtight lid on, and microwave the container for 4 minutes. This will steam the veggies.

I like the consistency of steamed veggies best (vs. boiled or baked, e.g.), and find that I don’t even have to go to the bother of seasoning them to get myself to eat them. I don’t love the taste per se, but I also don’t find it particularly offensive. I typically alternate bites of vegetables with bites of my main meal, as that helps minimize the overall amount of time you spend tasting just vegetables.

Cleaning the container you steam veggies in is a breeze, which is another reason I love this method so much. It basically eliminates all opportunity cost in eating veggies consistently, since you just pop ‘em in the microwave, and then rinse out the container in 5 seconds when done.

Chicken pasta with marinara sauce



  1. Mix together, microwave for 2 minutes.
Chicken pasta with brown gravy



  1. Mix together, microwave for 2 minutes.
Chicken wrap with taco sauce



  1. Microwave chicken base for 2 minutes.
  2. Add ingredients to wraps.
Chicken wrap with BBQ sauce



  1. Microwave chicken base for 2 minutes.
  2. Add ingredients to wraps.
BBQ turkey burger



  1. Preheat air fryer.
  2. Place the turkey burger in the air fryer on a piece of parchment paper. (Makes cleanup a breeze).
  3. Bake the turkey burger for 11 minutes at 380 degrees. Then flip it and cook it for another 11 minutes at 380 degrees.
  4. Place a slice of cheese on the bottom piece of bread, and put the turkey burger on top of it. Then add the BBQ sauce. Eat the pickle on the side.
PB&J sandwich



  1. Take out two pieces of bread. Flip one over (so that the pieces will match perfectly once you’ve spread stuff on them and are putting them back together).
  2. Add mixed PBFit to one slice of bread, and raspberry jelly to the other slice. Then stick the slices together.

I never bother actually measuring out Tbsp serving sizes for the peanut butter and jelly, but just eyeball it.

Chicken base

The base protein source for meals, containing chicken, onions, and bell peppers.



  1. Trim fat and cartilage from chicken using a cutting board and knife. Peel onions and cut them in half. Cut peppers in half and remove core/seeds.
  2. Cut the chicken into small pieces using a meat grinder.
  3. Mix cut-up chicken with chicken rub/seasoning in large bowl.
  4. Finely dice the onion and pepper halves with a vegetable chopper.
  5. Cook chicken in air fryer in batches, however many batches are necessary. Coat the bottom of the fryer with chicken (don’t stack it too much). After preheating the air fryer, cook at 380 degrees for 11 minutes, then flip/stir chicken and cook for another 11 minutes at 380 degrees. You don’t need much hands-on time in cooking chicken in batches like this, but it does tether you to the air fryer for a couple hours.
  6. Cook onions and peppers combined all in one go in the air fryer (no need to wash the air fryer between the chicken and the onions/peppers). 14 minutes at 380 degrees, then stir and do another 14 minutes at 380 degrees.
  7. Store 14 equal portions of the chicken/onions/peppers (more if you want less than ~140-150g of chicken per serving) in airtight mason jars (wide-mouth 16oz mason jars with reusable stainless steel lids + silicone seals), and freeze.
Pressure-cooker hard-boiled eggs



  1. Add one cup of water to the Instant Pot pressure cooker. Place 7 eggs on the wire platform, above the water.
  2. Using manual mode, set the pressure cooker to cook for 6 minutes at low pressure.
  3. Put a bunch of ice in a large bowl, and add water. Doing this before the eggs finish will ensure that the ice bath is cold when the eggs are ready to be placed in it.
  4. When done, switch the release to venting, and let sit for 5 minutes.
  5. Using kitchen tongs, remove the (hot) eggs from the pressure cooker, and add them to the ice bath. Let them sit in the ice bath for 30 minutes.
  6. Pat the eggs dry with paper towels, peel, and then store in the refrigerator until consumed.

Pressure cooking the eggs and then dunking them in an ice bath is the best way, since this procedure makes the eggs easier to peel compared to other hard-boiling methods. (At least in my experience).

Low calorie BBQ sauce



  1. Mix ingredients together in ceramic nonstick pot, stirring with a silicone-coated kitchen implement. (I use these, and like them a lot. I did manage to get mine in black rather than the bright red though).
  2. Let simmer on low-medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, or until thickened.
BBQ baked beans



  1. Soak beans in pot overnight.
  2. Drain beans with colander.
  3. Add the two pounds of beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot pressure cooker.
  4. With manual mode, cook on high pressure for 30 minutes.
  5. Put paper towels around the vent of the pressure cooker (in my experience with the 6 quart pressure cooker, this much volume with 8 cups of water and all the beans leads to messy venting).
  6. Switch the release to venting, and let sit for 5 minutes.
  7. Drain the beans with the colander again.
  8. Mix the beans with the BBQ sauce, and then store the BBQ baked beans in the refrigerator until consumed.
Protein chocolate milk


  • Around 1 cup of 1% milk
  • 1 scoop protein powder (leucine-rich whey in shakes after lifting to promote muscle anabolism, slow-digesting micellar casein the rest of the time to keep you full longer).


  1. Add milk and protein powder to NutriBullet. Blend until thoroughly mixed.
  2. Consume immediately, or store the chocolate milk in the refrigerator until consumed.

(I am a big fan of the NutriBullet blender, and it has nothing to do with the probably bogus marketing claims about improving bioavailability of nutrients in food. I like it because it is cheap, powerful enough that it blends things quickly, and is stupidly easy to clean).

Healthy fiber brownies



  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Mix ingredients in a large bowl.
  3. Pour into 8” square silicone baking pan. (These flexible silicone baking pans can be turned inside out, making cleaning corners/seams a complete breeze compared to most metal pans. They are also ridiculously cheap).
  4. Bake for 28 minutes at 375 degrees.
  5. Remove from oven, apply some chocolate syrup to the hot brownie, and then cut it with an ordinary butterknife while it is still warm (makes cutting it super easy – don’t use a sharp knife so that you don’t score the silicone baking pan). Cut into 12 equally sized-pieces.
  6. Store the brownies in the refrigerator until consumed. Microwave for 20 seconds before eating for warm chocolatey goodness.
Whole wheat pasta



  1. Fill up pot with “a lot” of water. (Enough so it won’t burn off).
  2. Add the whole wheat pasta
  3. Put on a burner on medium heat for 21 minutes. On my electric stove, that is about a 7 out out of 10.
  4. Remove from the burner, drain with colander, and then store the cooked pasta in the refrigerator until consumed.

Adding more or less water will change the cooking time slightly. I’m fine with my pasta being firm or soft, so never bother wasting the time to measure water precisely. (Or take into account differential boiling times by altitude, etc.).

Most instructions will have you bring the water to a boil, add a very specific amount of pasta, then bring it back to a boil for X minutes, but this is a hassle so I just dump the pasta in once and set a timer. Again, as long as the pasta is “cooked enough,” I couldn’t care less about firmness.

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