You’ll almost always hear that nutrition is more important than exercise.

I get what people mean and it’s true you’ll never be able to train hard enough or often enough to lose fat if you eat too much. On the other hand, you’ll never be able to build muscle if you don’t eat enough.

Nutrition is crucial but more important is your overall activity level. If you live a sedentary life sitting and laying around and never breaking a sweat, you’re doing tremendous damage to your body, your overall health, and you certainly won’t be able to build muscle and lose fat.

Increasing daily activity is the single most important component of getting fit.

If the majority of your day involves just sitting around (at your desk, during your  commute to and from work, watching TV, watching your kids play sports, etc.) then the primary changes you need to make immediately should be centered around increasing your daily activity. Start simple; start now. Consider adding some or all of these to your daily routine:

  • Start standing at your desk for 2-3 hours a day instead of sitting (feels weird at first).
  • Do a 10 minute stretching and warmup routine each morning.
  • Walk or jog for 20 minutes in the morning or early evening.
  • Shoot basketball for 20 minutes every other day.
  • Jump rope for 10 minutes.
  • Leave the riding mower parked and start using a push mower.

Remember that even minor increases in physical activity can make a huge positive physical impact.

The frustrating reality of increasing your daily activity level is that with an increase in activity comes an increase in appetite and with an increased appetite comes eating more and ultimately not losing the fat you want to lose.

As you increase your activity level, there is one massive adjustment you should make immediately to your diet.

Focus on eating whole nutrient dense foods instead of processed calorie dense foods.

In order to clean up your diet, you have to shift your thinking about eating. The primary goal of eating can no longer be about satisfying your hunger. Once you start eating with your fitness and health goals in mind rather than simply filling your stomach, you will discover a whole world of benefits.

Take a quick look at these lists and you’ll see the difference between whole nutrient dense foods and processed calorie dense foods:

Whole / Nutrient Dense Foods
Kale
Collard greens
Broccoli
Exotic berries: acai, goji
Spinach
Broccoli and cauliflower
Red peppers
Garlic
Parsley
Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
Asparagus
Carrots
Wild salmon
Grass-fed beef
Green beans
Tomatoes
Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, chia and flax
Sweet potatoes
Black beans
Wild rice

Processed / Calorie Dense Foods
Coffee creamer
White bread / white flour
Fruit Juice
Sodas
Fried Chicken (anything deep fried)
Bacon and Sausage
Sugary Cereal (Fruit Loops, etc)
White Sugar
Pancake Syrup
Biscuits
BBQ Sauce
Ice Cream
Energy Drinks
Boxed / Canned “Dinners”
Corn Chips
Potato Chips
Cookies
Mac and Cheese
Hot Dogs
Hamburgers
Donuts

In most cases the main difference between these lists is the amount of processing. In some sense almost everything we eat is “processed”. Even broccoli is picked and sorted by machines and pre-washed before it hits the produce section but that’s minimal processing compared to what happens to corn on the way to becoming a Cheeto!

Some whole foods fall into both the nutrient dense and calorie dense categories. Foods like nuts, avocados, oils (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, etc), and cheese are full of nutrients but they’re full of calories too. This is mostly because these nutrient dense foods are full of fat and with fat comes lots of calories. Nuts, oils, and cheeses are fine to eat but do so with extreme moderation if you’re trying to lose fat because they can spike your calorie intake in a hurry.

Adjusting your diet by reducing calorie dense foods and increasing nutrient dense foods will give you massive health benefits and you’re likely to start losing fat and feeling better without doing any sort of advanced meal planning, calorie counting, or intense training.

Here are 4 ways I started to make this switch:

  1. I stopped eating processed sugar. Sugar is all around us and the one substance keeping us fatter than anything else. At some point all carbs break down into sugar / glycogen to be used by our bodies as energy but the simpler the sugar (granulated, powdered, syrups, etc.) the quicker our bodies break it down. What we don’t use for energy immediately gets stored as fat. Eating foods with high amounts of sugar (think donuts and Fruit Loops) also spike our insulin levels which is one of the most powerful hormonal triggers for our bodies to store fat.Make your first dietary adjustment all about eliminating sugary foods – cakes, pies, ice cream, cookies, fruit juice, sodas, energy drinks, etc. That being said, don’t be a jerk and refuse birthday cake at your kid’s party. Just don’t make sugar a regular part of your diet.
  2. I stopped eating deep fried foods. Technically anything cooked in oil is “fried” but there’s a difference between “stir-fried” and “deep fried”. If it’s coated in flour or breadcrumbs and then dunked in oil until golden brown it’s “deep fried” and you shouldn’t eat it. Avoid “batters” of all kinds, even fried vegetables like okra and green tomatoes. The batters on these foods contain tons of calorie dense fat and carbs. Beyond how they taste, there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about eating deep fried foods. Switch to eating baked, grilled, or stir-fried foods (stir fry can be made with very little oil and no carbs at all).
  3. I started drinking more water. This isn’t too difficult assuming you cut out all the other sugary, high calorie drinks like sodas and fruit juice. The prevailing theory is that we all need to drink half a gallon of water every day.Don’t like water? Not enough flavor? There are plenty of no-calorie flavored powders you can add or if you want to keep things as natural as possible use lemon or lime juice. Sparkling water is another option. I found that my “addiction” to sodas was more about carbonation than flavor so drinking sparkling water has helped. It was easy to get used to the sharp taste of straight up sparkling water by starting out with the no-calorie flavored versions and working into the harder stuff. Even so, it’s best to drink a healthy mix of plain and sparkling water.Start each morning by drinking a large (at least 16 oz) glass of water and that should get you moving in the right direction. But what about coffee? Obviously coffee is mostly water but it’s still best to start the day with pure water and then drink your coffee a little later.
  4. I started eating a lot more non-starch vegetables. Next to giving up sugar this was the toughest of all my nutritional changes. I just don’t like green vegetables. I did discover, however, the trick to eating vegetables is trying them cooked in a variety of ways until I found some variations I loved (not liked – loved). Loving the flavors of what you eat is important so you’ll stay consistent.As for learning to love some vegetables, start with 3 (not corn, rice or potatoes – those are starches and not the kinds of vegetables I mean). Pick 3-5 vegetables you kind of like and try them cooked in a variety of ways. I chose broccoli, zucchini, peppers, Brussels sprouts, and spinach.  I found that steaming broccoli in a bag in the microwave with an Italian seasoning blend is my favorite way to eat it. I grill or oven roast zucchini and onions and I discovered I like spinach best raw in a salad or with eggs. I like Brussels sprouts roasted in olive oil and salt. On any given day I’ll eat broccoli, Brussels, and spinach and I work in others here and there. My tolerance for all vegetables has increased as I’ve experimented with these.

There’s certainly more to cover in terms of nutrition but these changes will lay the foundation for the rest.

In Summary

  1. Stop eating processed sugars
  2. Stop eating deep fried foods
  3. Start drinking at least a ½ gallon of water every day
  4. Start eating as many non-starch vegetables as you can tolerate