If you’re trying to cut body fat to get lean, you know the struggle can be real. It requires an overhaul of your training, diet, and lifestyle. And while Spartan athletes have the training (and racing) part down, nutrition and diet can be major hang-ups to getting results. The key for how to get lean?
“Losing body fat requires eating less calories than what we are expending,” Cindy Dallow, Ph.D., RD, and sports dietitian at 2 Doc Tri Coaching, says.
But of course, not all calories are created equal. The breakdown for macronutrients — required in large amounts in the diet — by calorie ratio is: 4 calories for carbs and protein, and 9 calories for fat.
“Higher protein intake plus strength and endurance training equals a leaner body for most people,” Dallow says. “Genetics also play a huge role here. Some people can get super lean while others cannot. But for most people, meeting protein needs is key to getting a lean, muscular look.”
Paying attention to your nutrition and combining it with exercise is absolutely essential if you’re looking to get lean.
“The bottom line is this: a healthy diet that provides enough energy for regular bouts of high-intensity-interval-training (which is what promotes the most fat loss), as well as strength training (which increases muscle mass and thus increases metabolic rate), will be adequate in all three macronutrients,” Dallow says.
“Generally, 50% carbohydrate, 30% fat, and 20% protein works well to produce good results.”
How to Get Lean: 9 Diet Tips that Make All the Difference
To get the right blend of nutrients in your meal plan without going too crazy about calorie counting, we've pulled together nine simple ways to adjust your nutrition and shed fat.
1. Check your gut health.
The root of finding out if your body is getting proper nutrition starts with your gut.
“Your digestive tract is lined with tens of thousands of cells that turn over quickly when damaged by processed foods, medications, excessive exercise, or other toxic environmental exposures,” Laura Kunces, Ph.D., RD, director of nutrition research at Thorne, says.
The bacterial population in your stomach also plays a major role in how your body digests, absorbs, and metabolizes nutrients. So, if something is off with how bacteria are functioning, your body will start to feel it. It may impact your weight, energy and stress levels, immune system, and even your sleep.
To check in with your microbiome, consider taking a simple at-home microbiome test to gauge gut health during training.
“A microbiome test should identify and measure the ratios of specific bacterial species, and offer recommendations for pre and probiotics to optimize their populations and ultimately, your performance and physique,” she says.
2. Reduce mindless eating.
It’s easy to plop down after a long day with a bag of any snack out there, but keeping this unhealthy habit can make you pack on pounds and impact your goals for getting lean. To avoid excess calories, Dallow suggests only eating at a designated ‘meal’ table, and avoiding eating while driving or in front of the TV or computer.
“It's difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness or satisfaction when you're distracted, which often leads to overeating,” she says.
3. Portion control with nuts and nut butters.
We know, nuts are insanely delicious. But unfortunately, they are notoriously full of fat (although it is good fat) and calories, and it can be easy to get carried away if you’re snacking straight from a jar of almonds or adding scoops of peanut butter to your morning protein shake.
"A serving of nuts or nut butter is a mere two tablespoons — that’s roughly the size of a golf ball,” Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, and a nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition, says. “It's easy to see folks filling up an 8-ounce cup with mixed nuts or smearing 1/3-1/2 cup of almond butter onto toast.”
Buying pre-portioned packets of nut butters or nuts or simply measuring out your portions into containers are easy ways to make sure you stick to appropriate portion sizes.
4. Be sure to get adequate protein at each meal.
When it comes to how much protein your body needs each day, it depends on several different factors, including how much you're working out, how much muscle mass you have, and more.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that for building and maintaining muscle mass, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most people who exercise.
“Most people need about 20-30 grams of protein at each meal, and 10-15 grams for each snack,” Dallow says.
5. Eat protein at night.
The time of day when you should eat protein may surprise you.
“Research suggests that consuming 30 grams of protein before bed is a great way to maintain muscle quality, metabolism, and overall health,” Kunces says.
She suggests eating cottage cheese or a protein shake made with either alpha-lactalbumin, a whey high in tryptophan, or casein, 30-60 minutes before you sleep.
6. Try turmeric.
This deep yellow spice that gives curry its signature color can seriously help you shed some fat.
“The [central] compound [called curcumin] plays a large role in helping manage systemic inflammation and providing antioxidants,” Kunces says. “Inflammation may be a reason for illness, injury, abnormal lab values, a plateau in training, or the inability to shed fat.”
Kunces recommends trying a curcumin supplement.
“Curry dishes may provide unwanted bad fats and carbohydrates, so try a well-absorbed curcumin supplement," she explains. "Research shows that curcumin can also reduce joint stiffness and decrease muscle soreness, so you can maintain your training.”
7. Eat plant-based meals and snacks.
Let’s be real— the easiest type of calorie to eat is usually carbs. Raw plants (we’re talking veggies and fruits) are extremely low-calorie variants of the carbs you love, but they often get neglected.
“While complex starches like sweet potato, beans, hummus, oats, whole grain toasts, and whole grain pretzels may be more nutritious than their refined counterparts, the fact is that in weight loss, starches and grains should be really relegated to 'supporting actor' status instead of 'starring role,'” Auslander Moreno says.
You can make easy swaps for raw plants out for higher-calorie carbs, like switching the quinoa in your grain bowl for a vegetable base (like salad or even a stir fry veggie bowl). And if you like sweeter snacks, Auslander Moreno suggests swapping in fruit (like an apple with almond butter or berries and cottage cheese) instead of almond butter toast or granola with cottage cheese.
8. Boost your vitamin D intake.
Vitamin D from the sun, food, or supplements is linked to an improved ability to lose body fat.
“We’ve known for a while that vitamin D levels can affect bone health, metabolism, and immune function, but they also play a central role in glucose control, insulin function, and weight loss," Kunces says. "People with higher BMIs from fat tend to have an inverse correlation with vitamin blood levels."
While eating more fatty fish and eggs may help, she suggests trying a vitamin D3 supplement if you still can't keep your levels up. Remember to monitor your vitamin D levels with regular blood tests if you have low levels to begin with.
9. Watch the booze.
Of course, alcohol contains calories that water and other calorie-free drinks don’t. Booze (even without all of the mixers) clocks in at 7 calories/gram.
“If your overall caloric intake is not excessive, an occasional drink or two is no problem," Dallow says. "But many people eat too many calories from food, so reducing-high calorie drinks like soda pop and alcohol are one way to reduce calorie intake."
Alcohol has also diuretic effects, which means it will dehydrate you — not ideal for tough training sessions or optimal recovery.
“My tips are to drink one full glass of water for every beer or glass of wine you have," Dallow suggests. "That way, you stay hydrated and you're less likely to drink too much alcohol."