Hey, Mitko aka Fitness Consistency Coach here and today I want to obliterate your biggest barrier to shedding the fat, building lean muscle mass and developing an amazing physique.
And that barrier, of course, is being able to stick to your diet.
As you know, nutrition is exceptionally important both when it comes to building muscle mass and especially when it comes to shedding the fat and staying lean (and healthy!).
And while I do think that training is equally as important, the fact is that while you might spend an hour to an hour and a half per day, 3-6 days a week, at the gym, nutrition is a 7-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day thing.
As the saying goes, you simply can’t out-train a bad diet.
Luckily, we live in the information age where information regarding nutrition is readily available at our fingertips for free.
What this means is that with a simple Google search you can learn pretty much everything you need to know about nutrition, whether your goal is to lose fat or build lean muscle mass.
Yet obesity is still on the rise, the gyms are as empty as ever once January passes and people are still struggling to stick to their diet for more than a week or so.
Indeed, it’s not information that people are lacking these days, but rather a method to help them consistently stick to a suitable diet without losing their minds.
This is exactly why I decided to put my coaching hat on today and lay out pretty much every single tip I can think of regarding how you can learn to stick to a diet consistently.
It’s a long read but,hey, if you actually apply this stuff, in a year you might just get to be in the 1% of people who have a phenomenal physique that literally turns heads.
Sounds good? Let’s jump right into it…
Have a goal
Whether it be in business, sports or physical fitness, every successful endeavor starts with a person who knows exactly what he wants to achieve and why.
There are two reasons why having a specific goal is so important.
First off, your goal contains your very motivation to pursue it a.k.a. your “why”. And your “why” is the sole Force (yeah, like in Star Wars) that will get you out of bed at 6 am on a rainy Monday morning to prepare breakfast and go to the gym.
Without your “why” you wouldn’t even consider changing your eating habits. That’s why you want to find out your “why” and make sure that it’s strong enough to support you when the going gets tough.
“But, Mitko, what do you mean ‘find out’ my ‘why’. I already know that my goal is to [build 20 pounds of muscle / lose 30 pounds of fat/ become a Greek god].”
The reason why I say that you need to find out your “why” is because it is not the same thing as your goal. Rather, as I said above, your “why” is contained INSIDE your goal.
See, you don’t really want to look like a Greek god for the sake of looking like a Greek god, do you?
The real reason why you want to develop a head-turning physique might be to: get girls to find you attractive… become famous in order to get more attention, validation or money… become healthier so you’re better able to support and be with your family and kids.
Your “why” is personal and unique to you. And if you cultivate it, it’s the thing that will sustain you over the long run, long after the excitement of starting a new training or nutrition plan has faded.
Given how important cultivating your “why” is, you might be wondering how you can find out yours. There’s a simple exercise you can use right now to find your “why” called “the 5 whys exercise”.
Simply state your goal and then repeatedly ask yourself “why” (usually 3-5 consecutive times will do).
For example, let’s say your goal is to lose 20 pounds of fat. After asking yourself why the first time, your answer might be something along the lines of “so I can fit into my jeans from college”.
Then you might ask “why do I want to be able to fit into my jeans from college?”. Your next answer might be something along the lines of “because back then I was lean and athletic”.
In response to that you might ask – “why do I want to be lean and athletic like back then?”. Your next answer might finally reveal your true motivation – “I want to be lean and athletic like I was back in college because girls used to find me more attractive back then and nowadays I can hardly get a date with a girl I like”. Again 3 to 5 consecutive whys should do the job.
Now that you have your “why”, remind yourself of it frequently. The pain of not achieving your goal and the pleasure of achieving it will drive you to take consistent action over the long run.
The second reason why having a goal is important is a bit more practical. Firstly, it has to do with the fact that you need to be able to measure your progress. What’s measured improves.
Secondly, it has to do with the fact that your goal is also your final destination, so to speak.
This is important because once you’ve determined your final destination and you’ve assessed your current standing, you can bridge the gap by backwards-engineering all the thing that you’ll need to do in order to move from your current situation towards your final destination.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Say you have a friend named Peter whose goal is to lose 20 pounds of fat, get ripped and reveal his six-pack abs. The logical thing for him to ask would be: what do I need to do in order to get the ripped physique I want?
Losing weight mainly depends on one’s energy balance so maybe the first thing Peter will focus on would be eating 10-20% less calories than he’s burning on average. Since, of course, he’d like to keep his current lean muscle mass in tact, he would then make sure that he’s consuming a sufficient amount of protein every day.
Next, he might realize that he still needs to consume his fair share of micronutrients (which is harder to do on a caloric deficit) so he might decide to develop the habit of consuming whole unprocessed foods 80-90% of the time.
After he adopts these basic habits, Peter might start experimenting with more advanced techniques like intermittent fasting, carb cycling, etc. And if he stays consistent with all of these individual practices for a long enough time, he will, in fact, get ripped and develop that killer physique he’s after.
As illustrated by our example, having a goal will help you bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, and it will help you know exactly what you need to do next in order to achieve your vision.
After you’ve set your goal, you’ll need to…
Have realistic expectations
Sometimes I feel like so many of the New Year’s resolutioners fall off the wagon by the end of January simply because they have unrealistic expectations.
Whether that’s because we’re constantly bombarded with (suspicious) before/after pictures on social media or because we just wish it were easier, I don’t know. But you have to get this into your head: you are not going to look like a fitness model in 3 months. Or in a year. Honestly, it might take you upwards of 3 years to get to that level, if that’s your goal.
Of course, my intention with these last few sentences is not to discourage you (that would be kind of counter-productive, wouldn’t it?). Instead, I want you to have the right mindset as you set out to develop a better physique for yourself.
You see, body recomposition (i.e. losing fat and building muscle) is a slow, tedious process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, if you will.
So if you “enter the race” believing that it’s a sprint, you’ll quickly run out of energy and fall off the wagon. On the other hand, if you realize that it’s going to be a long, tedious marathon, you’re going to start out with a steady, sustainable pace, letting you build momentum and lasting ’till the end.
More specifically, if your goal is to lose fat, you need to realize that a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss is 0.5-1% of your body weight per week. And if your goal is to build muscle, then you need to know that you can build around 20-25 pounds of lean muscle mass in your first year of training.
Yes, that means around 2 pounds of lean muscle gained per month…
It’s not much, but it’s reality.
Not only that, but some of you will likely have to both lose fat and build muscle mass (in successive phases), further lengthening the path to your goal.
All that being said, there’s no reason to be upset. It’s not like you’ll work out and manage your nutrition consistently for an entire year without seeing any results, and then – boom – one day you transform into your ultimate form!
Instead, if you consistently eat well and work out, you’ll see progress in the mirror each month. This will keep you motivated and willing to do the work ahead.
Now that you have the right mindset, you can go ahead and…
Learn the fundamentals & pick a nutrition approach you like
Once you decide to get your nutrition in check, there are a thousand nutrition approaches you could choose from. Do you go low carb, do you do intermittent fasting? Maybe eat like a caveman? Or go vegan (I hear vegans go to heaven)?
Well, good news, (almost) all of them work. The best thing you could do is learn the basics of good nutrition (read this and this and you’re set), and then pick the approach you like.
Just to restate 3 of the most important principles of exercise nutrition:
- If you want to lose weight, eat less calories than you’re burning on average. If you want to gain mass, eat more calories than you’re burning on average.
- Try to eat whole unprocessed or minimally processed foods 80-90% of the time.
- Consume around 0.9 g of protein per pound of body weight a day (or 2 g per kg).
As long as you follow these basic tenants of good nutrition, all of the above diets will work. Why do you pick the one you like then?
Because the best diet is the one you can stick to. And if you like it, you’re more likely to stick to it.
For instance, let’s say your goal is to lose fat and get shredded. I don’t care if you’re vegan or if you do low carb or paleo. If you’re consuming less calories than you’re burning and if you’re eating a sufficient amount of protein and micronutrients, then just pick the one you like the most.
Sure, if you’re currently on a low carb diet, you might be better off carbing up for workout sessions and doing carb cycling. But if your limiting factor is consistency (which I’m guessing is true since you’re reading a +5000 word article on the topic), then making things more complex than they need be at the current stage is actively counter-productive.
Seriously, if you hate broccoli and your diet plan has you eating broccoli daily, or if you love chocolate and sweets, and your diet plan says zero sugar, how do you expect to stick to it long-term?
It’s. Not. Happening.
Just pick the nutritional ideology that you resonate with the most while making sure you’re covering the above-mentioned basics, and you’ll maximize your chances of consistently sticking to your diet.
Anyway, now that you’ve decided on a nutrition strategy that you like, you just dive right into it, correct?
ERRR. WRONG. Instead of trying to make a dozen changes in your eating habits from day one, in order to maximize your chances for consistency, you want to…
Focus on making one small change at a time
I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. In fact, if you pick one thing up from this entire article, let it be this.
You do NOT want to try to change every single component of your diet from day one. This will lead to overwhelm, and ultimately it will lead to your failure and to your demise! Okay, you probably won’t die, but still…
This is probably where people screw up the most. They make a New Year’s resolution to lose a bunch of weight or build a bunch of muscle, January 1st hits and they go batshit crazy.
They cut out ALL “junk” food from their diets and start eating chicken and broccoli exclusively. This usually lasts for 2-3 weeks after which they inevitably rebound and go on an all-you-can-eat spree of pizza, candy bars and gingerbread men.
That’s not you though, right? Because you’re smart!
So what you will do is, you will focus on one single nutrition practice and work on it for a number of days (2-3 weeks at the very least) before you move on to the next.
Let’s continue our example with Peter who wants to lose 20 pounds of fat. We already more or less mapped out everything he needs to do in order to achieve his goal.
Now, if he’s smart, what he will NOT do is he will not try to eat enough protein, consume less calories than he’s burning, start hitting the gym 3-4 times a week and cut out junk food from his diet entirely, all at the same time.
Instead, Peter will pick one thing to work on. Given his goal of losing fat, that’ll probably be to consume less calories than he’s burning on average.
To do that, he might calculate his caloric intake and energy expenditure or he might just cut out some carbs and/or fats from one or more meals and measure his weight and/or waist weekly. Then, if he’s not losing weight at an appropriate rate, he can simply lower his intake further.
Once he does this small habit consistently for 2-3 weeks, he can leave it on autopilot for the time being and focus on another nutritional practice, for example his protein intake or food choices. Rinse and repeat. This approach will ensure that there’s no overwhelm and it’ll help Peter integrate good nutritional practices into his daily life.
That last point is very important to understand: doing things this way will ensure that you build habits for life.
Think about it, even if you were able to stay consistent with one of those crazy fad diets for 2 months and lose a bunch of weight, once you inevitably went off of the unsustainable diet and went back to your old ways of eating, you would gain all of that weight back.
If, on the other hand, you build proper nutritional habits for life, you’ll not only develop the physique of your dreams, but you will also get to KEEP IT.
Anyway, now that you have the basic strategy in place, let’s go into some actual tactics that will help you stick to your diet successfully…
Manage hunger and fullness
Not being able to manage hunger and fullness successfully is one of the most common reasons why people fall off the wagon. That’s why in order to be able to stick to a diet, whether it’s a fat loss plan or a massing plan, you need to be armed with the knowledge necessary to manage hunger and fullness properly.
As part of your endocrine system, you have two main hunger and satiety hormones: ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is your hunger hormone and it signals your brain that you are hungry and you need to seek out food while leptin is your satiety hormone and it signals your brain that you’re full and should stop eating.
What you need to know about these two hormones is that they take about 15-20 minutes to kick in.
So if your goal is to lose weight but you devour your entire meal along with a small village in the span of 5-10 minutes, your hormones will not have had the chance to kick in and tell you when it’s time get off the kitchen table.
Similarly, if your goal is to build mass but you’re having a hard time consuming the large amounts of food necessary to gain weight, taking half an hour to finish your meal isn’t really helping your appetite.
That’s why, in order to take advantage of the way your hormones work, if your goal is to lose weight you want to take at least 20-25 minutes to finish your meal, and if your goal is to gain weight you want to eat quicker before satiety kicks in.
On another level, some foods are more satiating than others, and different foods contain different amounts of calories per gram. We can use these two facts to better manage hunger and fullness on a diet.
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient out of the three (protein, fat, carbohydrate) and it has the highest TEF or thermic effect of food (the amount of energy necessary to process food for use and storage).
That, coupled with the fact that it helps preserve – and build- lean muscle mass, is why consuming a sufficient amount of protein is one of the foundational nutritional practices you want to adopt.
More specifically, you want to consume around 0.9 g of protein per pound of body weight a day (or 2 g per kg).
Dietary fat is also more satiating than carbohydrate but it contains 9 kcal per g while carbs contain 4 kcal per g, so if you’ve decided to give a low-carb diets a try for fat loss purposes, keep an eye on your total caloric intake to make sure that those two factors don’t cancel each other out.
Furthermore, solid food takes longer to digest than liquids and thus keeps us full longer.
This is why you might want to stick to solid food when you’re on a fat loss diet and add in liquid calories (e.g. milk, shakes, etc.) when you’re trying to add mass to your frame.
Finally, some foods contain less calories per gram. This is useful to know because your stomach has stretch receptors. When it stretches, a satiety hormone is released to tell us we’re full.
Knowing this, and keeping in mind that to lose weight we need to eat less calories than we’re burning, it makes sense that we might be better off picking foods that are lower in calories per gram if we’re trying to lose weight.
That way we’ll feel satiated AND we’ll lower our caloric intake successfully at the same time. For example, 100 g of cooked rice contain 130 kcal while 100 g of boiled broccoli contain only 35 kcal – they take up the same space yet we’ve eaten 73% less calories.
On the flip side, if you’re trying to gain weight, you can make your life considerably easier by choosing foods higher in calories per gram. That way it’ll be easier to eat the large amount of calories necessary to gain mass.
Managing your hunger and fullness properly will be one of the keys to sticking to your diet successfully. But of course, there are other reasons why we fall off our diets as well…
Keep junk food out of the house
The well-known nutritionist, John Berardi, says:
If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, you will eventually eat it.
And he couldn’t be more right. So much of the reason why we overeat on “junk” food is simply out of habit. You’re not particularly hungry while minding your business at home or at the office when you spot the chocolate bar on the table. But you still eat it.
In his famous book, The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that there are 3 parts to a habit. First, you have the trigger (the thing that triggers the habit), then you have the habit itself, and finally you have the reward.
So what happened in the above scenario was, you saw the chocolate bar on the table (the trigger), which made you want to eat some chocolate (the habit), which in turn led to you feeling good (the reward).
What Duhigg suggests is that if you want to break a habit, all you need to do is remove the trigger. That way the habit won’t ever be activated to begin with.
What this means for us is that if we are to maximize our chances of sticking to our diet, we should start by removing all temptation from home or from the office where we spend most of our time.
This will aid our efforts of sticking to our diet in two ways.
Not only will we remove the trigger so that the habit never occurs, but even if we were to see a commercial for a chocolate bar on TV that triggers that same habit, we would now have to get up, tie our shoes and go all the to the store to buy the food we crave.
Lucky for us, we’re lazy bastards so that will seldom happen. Anyway, while we’re on the topic of shopping…
Shop with a shopping list
The last thing you want to do when you hit the store is to wander aimlessly from aisle to aisle contemplating what to buy. As you might know, the store is set up in such a way that it maximizes the value of the buyer’s cart (i.e. you buy more stuff because of the way the merchandise is positioned).
And the majority of foods inside are, for good or for worse, highly processed “junk” foods. While this does make their shelf life a lot longer, it strips them of most of those invaluable micronutrients that you need in order to stay healthy and function properly.
Adding to that, most “junk” foods contain a lot of added salt and sugar making them hyper-palatable. This way these foods hijack our amygdala, the reward region of our brain, and we want to eat more and more of them.
Although this can be useful in some situations (e.g. for someone who wants to build muscle but is struggling to consume a surplus of calories), it’s detrimental for your physique goals in most situations.
That’s why you want to prepare a shopping list ahead of time and bring it with you when you go shopping.
This way you can enter the store, buy what you need and get out of there. This will both help you make better food choices AND it will save you a lot of time.
Speaking of time…
Book time for cooking (or hire a meal prep service)
The next thing you want to do in order to make sure that you don’t end up eating take-away pizza, is to explicitly book time for cooking. You know how the old saying goes:
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
You ARE going to get hungry at some point – we know that much. So at that point, if you don’t have a healthy meal prepared, you’re going to be forced to make less than ideal food choices.
In order to prevent this situation from ever happening, what you need is better time management.
Think about it. When you want to be sure that something gets done, what do you do? Likely, you write it down in your to-do list and you schedule it ahead of time. That way it’s in your calendar and it’s going to get done.
At least in the beginning of your nutrition journey, you’re going to have to apply the same discipline with meal preparation and book time to cook your meals. Later on, this will become a habit and you won’t have to write it down explicitly.
Of course, an alternative to this would be hiring a meal prep service to prepare your food for you. This comes at a higher cost, but at least you’ll have successfully handled the issue for the time being.
Another step you might take to ensure that you’re never caught off-guard is to…
Have easy-to-prepare go-to meals
Unless you’re a great cook (and even if you are), you’ll want to have a couple of easy-to-prepare meals that you can always make so that time and convenience never become an excuse to head to McDonald’s.
Browse through a few cooking websites and pick 4-5 recipes of meals that are made with whole unprocessed or minimally processed foods and that don’t take a lot of time to prepare.
As time goes on, you can add more recipes to your roster.
This will ensure that you never fall off the bandwagon due to weird circumstances or lack of cooking skills. You might also want to…
Have a plan when eating out
Another all too common pitfall occurs when people have to eat outside. They might be doing well with their nutrition when they’re at home but once they leave the house all hell breaks loose.
If you want to prevent this from happening to you, once again, have a plan.
Of course, you don’t want to be so rigid in your nutrition that you can’t enjoy a meal out with friends. That’s why your best bet when dining out will be to use a more flexible approach like the “red, yellow and green foods” approach, for example.
The “red, yellow and green foods” approach is very simple:
Red means do not eat. These might be foods that you’re allergic or intolerant to or they might be foods that you’ve noticed tend to wreck your diet (do you sometimes have a cookie, telling yourself that you’ll only have one, but ending up eating another one… and another one… and another one? Maybe you should keep cookies away from you?).
Yellow means approach with caution. These might be somewhat processed foods that you shouldn’t go overboard with but which aren’t downright ruining your diet.
Finally, green means consume freely. Most whole unprocessed foods fall into this category.
If you eat outside regularly, you might also want to learn how to determine portion sizes so that you don’t end up eating too much or too little for your goals.
A very easy way to do this is using Precision Nutrition’s hand size portion guide:
For men, you want to eat around 2 palms of protein, 2 cupped handfuls of carbs, 2 thumbs of fat and 2 fists of vegetables for each meal.
For women, you want to eat around 1 palm of protein, 1 cupped handful of carbs, 1 thumb of fat and 1 fist of vegetables for each meal.
These are just rough estimates and you might have to add or subtract a few cupped handfuls of carbs and/or a few thumbs of fats from your meals in order to make your caloric intake better suit your goals, but this approach is a good way to determine portion sizes when you’re out.
Now that you have the strategy and tactics to enable you to take action in the right direction, next you want to…
Aim for good enough – not perfect
The all-or-nothing mentality is one of the biggest consistency killers out there.
As we’ve already discussed, you want to focus on making one small change at a time. If you try to do everything at once, soon you’ll burn out and quit.
Instead, take the sustainable approach and make one small change after another, and in a few months you’ll face compounding returns.
Adding to this point, you don’t want to aim for perfect either. Say you’re trying to tackle your protein intake and you’ve decided to increase your protein to 0.9 g per pound of body weight a day.
If you focus on this habit for the next 14 days and you manage to do it for 11 days successfully, that’s already more than a 78% rate of consistency.
Of course, aim for 100%, but that being said, anything above 75% you should count as a big success and as a reason for celebration.
Think about it… if you’re consistent with all the practices that we noted in the beginning of the article 75% of the time, your physique would be amazing.
Furthermore, one small win after another will help you build massive momentum and confidence, and you’ll soon be doing more advanced practices which will bring you even better results.
Finally, to further guarantee that you will stick to proper nutrition over the long run, you want to…
This must be the single most overlooked tip for consistency there is, which is sad because it simply works.
Here’s why: if you tell a person or a group of people that you’re going to do something, say sticking to a diet in order to build a better body, the possible humiliation of not abiding by your word is going to push you out of your comfort zone and help you accomplish the task at hand.
Shame is a very, very strong motivator.
When it comes to nutrition, there are a couple of ways to go about getting accountability.
One way would be to tell a friend that you’re going to be managing your nutrition better from now on and you need them to hold you accountable. You could arrange to report to them daily with photos of the food you ate.
Or you could get a fitness coach. Not only will they hold you accountable but they will also have the necessary knowledge to help you improve your nutrition (and training) one step at a time so you can develop the physique you want.
Another reason why getting a coach rather than a friend to keep you accountable is because when you’re not close friends with the person, you’ll take things more seriously and you’ll know that they won’t cut you slack just because you’re friends.
Also, when you’re paying your coach, you’ll be that more determined to at least get a return on your investment by getting the results you’re after. Nobody wants to see their money go to waste.
You could also try out a web app like our very own MK Fitness Consistency Tracker. It’s free and it tells you exactly what you need to do to build muscle or shed the unwanted fat plus it will also keep you accountable by prompting you to log your activity daily.
Finally, our free MK Fitness & Consistency Facebook group is another place where you can get accountability, discuss the things you’re currently struggling with and get valuable input from the other members and me.
Your plan of action
I know this has been a long read so I’d like to leave you off with an actual plan to follow just to make sure that you don’t become one of the many victims of information overload.
Here’s your 11-step action plan:
- Pick a single goal and figure out your “why”.
- Backwards-engineer all the habits and practices that you’ll need to adopt in order to achieve your goal.
- Pick one simple practice to focus on for the next 14 days and do it.
- If you’ve successfully done your practice at least 75% of the time, leave it on autopilot and pick another practice to focus on for the next 14 days.
- If, or when, you don’t manage to hit 75% consistency with a given practice, either give it 14 more days or pick an easier practice to focus on and get back to this one later on.
- Keep junk food out of the house.
- Shop with a shopping list.
- Book time for cooking (or hire a meal prep service).
- Have 4 to 5 easy-to-prepare go-to meals.
- Get accountability.
- Build sustainable fitness habits for a lifetime.
While training and nutrition information is abundant, fitness consistency can be as elusive as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster for some. Being able to stick to a healthy diet that suits your goals is basically winning half the battle.
Try out the tips mentioned above and follow the Plan of Action I’ve laid out for you, and you’ll soon be building momentum and loving the results that you’re getting.