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,” says Cindy Dallow, PhD, RD, sports dietitian at 2 Doc Tri Coaching.
But of course, not all calories are created equal. The breakdown for macronutrients—required in large amounts in the diet—by calorie ratio is: carbs: 4 calories; protein: 4 calories; fat: 9 calories. “Higher protein intake plus strength and endurance training equals leaner body for most people,” says Dr. Dallow. “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 diet, in combination with exercise, are absolutely essential if you’re looking to get lean. “Bottom line is this: a healthy diet that provides enough energy for regular bouts of high-intensity-interval-training (which is what promotes fat loss), as well as strength training (which increases muscle mass and thus increases metabolic rate), will be adequate in all three macronutrients,” says Dr. Dallow. “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
So to get the right blend of nutrients in your diet, without going too crazy about calorie counting, we've pulled together 9 simple ways to adjust your diet and shed fat. Here, the ultimate Spartan-worthy guide on how to get lean.
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 turnover quickly when damaged by processed foods, medications, excessive exercise, or other toxic environmental exposures,” says Laura Kunces, PhD, RD, director of nutrition research at Thorne.
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, like Gutbio from Onegevity, 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.”
2. Reduce mindless eating.
It’s easy to plop down after a long day with a bag of (insert crunchy snack here), but keeping this unhealthy habit can make you pack on pounds and impact your goals for getting lean. To avoid excess calories, Dr. 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 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,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. “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 for building muscle mass and maintaining muscle mass, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4-2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most people who exercise. “Most people need about 20-30 grams (g) of protein at each meal, and 10-15 g for each snack,” says Dr. Dallow.
5. Eat protein...at night.
The time of day when you should eat protein may surprise you. “Research suggests 30 grams of protein before bed is a great way to maintain muscle quality, metabolism, and overall health,” says Dr. Kunces.
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.
Related: Why Spartans Need Protein Before Bed
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,” says Dr. Kunces. “Inflammation may be a reason for illness, injury, abnormal lab values, a plateau in training, or the inability to shed fat.”
Dr. Kunces recommends trying a curcumin supplement. “Curry dishes may provide unwanted bad fats and carbohydrates, so try a well-absorbed curcumin supplement. Research shows 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. And often, plants (we’re talking veggies and fruits) get neglected. “While complex starches like sweet potato, beans, hummus, oats, whole grain toasts, whole grain pretzels, etc. 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',” says Auslander Moreno.
You can make easy swaps for plants instead of 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 vitamin D levels can affect bone health, metabolism, and immune function, but it also plays a central role in glucose control, insulin function, and weight loss. And people with higher BMIs from fat tend to have an inverse correlation with vitamin blood levels,” says Dr. Kunces.
While eating more fatty fish and eggs may help, she suggests trying a vitamin D3 supplement and keeping track of 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 (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. 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,” says Dr. Dallow.
If you’re dying to know the calorie count on your favorite cocktail, or practically any other alcoholic beverage out there, the U.S. National Library of Medicine has got you covered. Plus, alcohol has diuretic effects, which means it will dehydrate you. “My tips are to drink one full glass of water for every beer or glass of wine you have. That way, you stay hydrated and you're less likely to drink too much alcohol,” says Dr. Dallow.