How to fix a broken diet:

3 ways to get your eating on track.

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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In this article I’ll share the 3 main strategies I use to help clients fix a “broken diet” and start eating better.

I’ll also share how we troubleshoot eating plans when they’ve “just stopped working” and you don’t know what else to try.

And, finally, I’ll show you how to use these powerful and purposeful strategies to improve your own eating. Or to help others do the same.

Note: I’ve also prepared a comprehensive video seminar covering this topic. It was recorded live in London, England. So click here if you’d rather watch the seminar than read the article.

Bonus: We even created a cool infographic that summarizes this article. Click here for: How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track (infographic).

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Nutrition “advice” often comes in buzzwords and slogans. We’ve all heard at least one of these gems:

  • “Just eat whole foods.”
  • “Only eat food that your grandmother would recognize.”
  • “Eat more fat and fewer carbs.”
  • “If it doesn’t run, fly or swim – or it isn’t a green vegetable – don’t eat it.”

It’s easy to simplify healthy eating into a five-second pitch. But soundbytes aren’t enough to actually help people fix their eating and get better results.

You see, when you’re an actual nutrition coach who works with real humans in the real world, slogans don’t get the job done.

Real people need patient, careful, empathetic coaching. This means:

  • Listening to their needs and what they want to accomplish.
  • Learning how they live.
  • Discovering what’s really important to them.
  • And then working together to create the right nutritional approach for them, a diet that’s personal and unique, based on their goals and lifestyle.

Another thing that good nutrition coaches do to help their clients?

  • Observing their progress carefully and correcting course as necessary.

Here’s why: Every diet system is going to stop working at some point. No matter how great it seems initially, that diet will break. 

And when it does, your next step is crucial.

So, in this article, I’ll help you figure out how to get started when your diet feels broken. I’ll also share exactly how we troubleshoot nutrition plans when “they’ve just stopped working”.

And then I’ll teach you how to do it all yourself.

First, though, a disclaimer. I’m not going to give you a set of rules to follow. Or even share a specific diet philosophy.

Instead, I’m going to share a framework for evaluation.

This way, if you follow a Paleo diet, you can learn to Paleo better. If you’re a vegan, you can learn to do that better too. And, if you’re just getting started with eating healthier, you can start out right, without wasting time and energy.

Step 1: Identify and remove nutritional deficiencies

Most people think they need a complete overhaul at first.

“I have to cut out sugar… and dairy… and carbs… and saturated fat.
Plus I have to eat more protein… more healthy fats… and more vegetables.
Not a lot of fruit, though.
I have to start drinking lots of water too.
And exercise… maybe a 6 am boot camp… yeah.”

I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted just thinking about changing all this, all at once. Let’s call it the “Mission Impossible” approach.

After coaching over 20,000 clients in the last few years, I’ve come to realize that the Mission Impossible approach isn’t just difficult; it’s misguided.

Because a complete overhaul rarely addresses what’s making most people feel bad in the first place.

Often, people struggle with how they look and feel because their physiology doesn’t work the way it should.

This can be hormonal imbalances, but it’s more often dietary deficiency: not getting the right nutrients, in the right amounts, to get the best results.

Dietary deficiencies, therefore, are the first red flag that something’s wrong.

Deficiencies graph How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.

Just how common are dietary deficiencies?

The research in this area is pretty telling. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that it’s really hard to get all the essential vitamins and minerals from food alone.

This study analyzed 70 athlete diets. Every single diet was deficient in at least three nutrients. Some diets were missing up to fifteen nutrients! The most common deficiencies?

  • iodine
  • vitamin D
  • zinc
  • vitamin E
  • calcium

Another study, also published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, showed that people following one of four popular diet plans (including Atkins, South Beach, and the DASH diet) were also very likely to be micronutrient deficient, particularly in six key micronutrients:

  • vitamin B7
  • vitamin D
  • vitamin E
  • chromium
  • iodine
  • molybdenum

Back when I was a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario, I set out to find the mythical “balanced diet.” I analyzed the intake of nearly 600 fourth-year exercise and nutrition undergraduate students.

Shockingly, less than 10% met the minimum standards for a “complete, balanced diet”. Like the other studies, these folks were missing such nutrients as:

  • zinc
  • magnesium
  • vitamin D
  • omega 3 fatty acids
  • protein

Bottom line: Dietary deficiencies are very common. Chances are, you’ve got one, no matter how good you think your diet is.

That’s a problem because when you’re deficient in key nutrients, your physiology doesn’t work properly. And when your body doesn’t work as it should, you feel rotten.

Just how important is this first step?

Energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance, and mood all rely on getting enough of these essential nutrients. When you don’t get them, things break down.

That’s why you can eat “clean”, go Paleo, avoid meat, lower your carbs, or count calories – you can do “everything right” nutritionally – and still feel lousy.

You need to identify your red flags from the very beginning and start eliminating them, one by one.

What are the common nutritional red flags?

Here are the most common deficiencies we see with new clients:

  • water (low-level dehydration)
  • vitamins and minerals
  • protein (particularly in women and in men with low appetites)
  • essential fatty acids (95% of the population is deficient here)

To find out where you stand, you could get your diet analyzed by a dietitian (this typically costs between $100 and $150).

You could also record what you eat each day and enter it into an online diet calculator like the ones at Fitday or Livestrong.com.

At Precision Nutrition, we like to make it even easier. As soon as clients begin with us, we do a quick survey of what they’re eating. From there, we help them:

  • eat more of the protein-rich foods they prefer;
  • drink more hydrating fluids;
  • take in more essential fats (through the use of fish or algae oil); and
  • eat more foods rich in the vitamins and minerals they need most.

Without any other advanced screening or dietary changes, our clients quickly start feeling better. They lose fat and gain lean muscle. They feel more motivated. And their workouts become easier and better.

The power of removing nutrient deficiencies

Here’s just one example (of many): Research in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that providing fish oil and a multivitamin to prison inmates reduces aggressive and violent behavior by 35% and decreases antisocial behavior by 26%.

Also, a paper published in Nutrition Reviews shows that giving children fish oil and a multivitamin improves both their behavior and intelligence scores. (Who doesn’t want a smarter, better-behaved kid?)

That’s the power of removing nutrient deficiencies. When our bodies don’t have the nutrients they need to do their work, we all suffer. But as soon as we get these nutrients, we thrive.

Step 2: Adjust food amount and food type

Once we’re getting all the raw materials necessary for proper functioning (essential nutrients) we can move on to bigger issues. These include:

  • food amount (what some call calorie intake); and
  • food composition (which includes macronutrient breakdown).

Food amount and calorie counting

In our coaching programs we help clients get away from using handbooks, websites, databases, spreadsheets, and math when planning meals.

You see, while we know that total food (calorie) intake matters, we’re just not fans of counting calories.

To begin with, calorie counting does nothing to help us tune into our own powerful hunger and appetite cues. By learning how to listen to our own bodies, we have better long-term success in healthy eating.

(Of course, not everyone knows how to do this from the start. It takes a little coaching and some practice.)

Nor does calorie counting help us balance our health goals with our natural human enjoyment of food. In the short term, anyone can turn eating into a numerical and robotic exercise. But, in the long run, this strategy falls apart.

(Just ask anyone who “used to” count calories. You shouldn’t have a hard time finding them.)

There’s another problem with calorie counting: It’s just not all that accurate.

Because of incorrect labeling, laboratory errors, and differences in food quality and preparation, calorie counts recorded on food labels and websites – even those within the USDA’s nutrient databases – can be off by as much as 25%.

Bottom line: even if you’re the world’s best calorie counter (and you don’t mind the soul-sucking boredom that comes along with it) the math just doesn’t add up.

Precision Nutrition Blog Broken Diet How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.

Calorie control without counting

We teach our clients a different approach to calorie control, using their own hand as the ultimate, portable measurement tool.

For example, men might begin by eating:

  • 2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
  • 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at most meals; and
  • 2 thumbs of fat dense foods at most meals.

And women might begin by eating:

  • 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 fist of vegetables at each meal;
  • 1 cupped handful of carb dense foods at most meals; and
  • 1 thumb of fat dense foods at most meals.

First, we help clients see what this looks like. Like, in real life. On a plate.

Then, we adjust actual portion sizes up or down, depending on each person’s unique body and goals. For example:

  • Men who want to add mass fast get 2 palms of protein dense foods at every meal, and — what the heck — throw in another thumb of fat or cupped handful of carbs.
  • But men in who want to lose fat might scale down to 1-2 palms of protein, 1 thumb of fat, and 1 cupped handful of carbs, eaten slowly and mindfully to “80% full”.

Of course, just like any other form of nutrition planning – including detailed calorie counting – this meal template is just a starting point.

You can’t know exactly how your body will respond in advance. So stay flexible and “steer dynamically”. Adjust your portions based on your hunger, fullness, overall activity level, and progress towards your goals.

Start with the basic template and then adjust your portions at any time using outcome-based decision-making, aka: “How’s that working for you?”

For more on this idea, including photo examples, check out our calorie control guide for men and women by clicking here.

Food and macronutrient composition

Most people can simply eliminate nutrient deficiencies and get food portions and quality right, and stop there.

Small adjustments in those two areas – and nothing more – will make a huge difference in how 90% of folks look and feel. Simple. Easy.

However, for those who want to go further – because they have more advanced goals or because they’re already doing the first two and still struggling – let’s talk about food composition.

At Precision Nutrition, we have a really simple shortcut for helping people “eat right for their body type”.

We begin by classifying clients into one of three general categories (or somatotypes):

  • I types (ectomorphs),
  • V types (mesomorphs), and
  • O types (endomorphs).

Here’s a male example of each body type:

Body Types A How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.

Here’s a female example of each body type:

female somatotypes How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.

Nutrition for “I types”

I types (ectomorphs) are thin, with smaller bone structures and thinner limbs. Think of a typical endurance athlete. And they have a few key features that affect their response to food.

  • Their engine speed is set to “high revving”. They tend to be thyroid- and sympathetic nervous system-dominant with either a higher output or higher sensitivity to catecholamines like epinephrine and norepinephrine. They typically have a fast metabolic rate.
  • They’re high-energy. They’re often fidgeters and pacers. They tend to burn off excess calories with near-constant movement throughout the day.
  • They tolerate carbs well. These are the rare folks who can seem to eat cookies with impunity.

I types therefore generally do best with more carbohydrates in the diet, along with a moderate protein and lower fat intake. So that’s what we recommend: more healthy carbs and less fat with a moderate amount of protein.

A nutrient distribution for this body type might be around 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat. (But don’t drive yourself crazy with the math. Just think “higher carbs and lower fat.”)

Here’s what that might look like using our portion control guide.

I type men begin by eating:

  • 2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
  • 3 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 thumb of fat dense foods at each meal.
Diet Men How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for men, I type.

I type women begin by eating:

  • 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 fist of vegetables at each meal;
  • 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 0.5 thumb of fat dense foods at each meal.
I Type Diet Women How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for women, I type.

Nutrition for “V types”

V types (mesomorphs) have a medium sized bone structure and athletic body, and if they’re active, they usually have a considerable amount of lean mass. Many explosive athletes like wrestlers and gymnasts fit these criteria.

  • Their bodies are designed to be powerful machines. Excess calories often go to lean mass and dense bones.
  • They tend to be testosterone and growth hormone dominant.
  • Thus, they can usually gain muscle and stay lean easily.

V types therefore generally do best on a mixed diet, with balanced carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. So that’s what we recommend.

A nutrient distribution for this body type might be around 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. (Again, don’t drive yourself crazy with the math. Just envision a roughly balanced mix of all three macronutrients.)

Here’s what that might look like using our portion control guide.

V type men begin by eating:

  • 2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
  • 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 thumb of fat dense foods at each meal.
V Type Diet Men How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for men, V type.

V type women begin by eating:

  • 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 fist of vegetables at each meal;
  • 1 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 thumb of fat dense foods at each meal.
V Type Diet Women How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for women, V type.

Nutrition for “O types”

O types (endomorphs) have a larger bone structure with higher amounts of total body mass and fat mass. Football linemen, powerlifters, and throwers are typically endomorphs.

  • Their engine speed is set to “idle”. They tend to be parasympathetic nervous system dominant. Unlike ectomorphs, endomorphs are built for solid comfort, not speed.
  • They’re naturally less active. Where the ectomorphs tend to burn off excess calories with near constant movement, excess calories in endomorphs do not seem to cause that same increase in expenditure. This means that excess calories are more likely to be stored as fat.
  • They typically have a slower metabolic rate and generally don’t tolerate carbohydrates as well, particularly if they are sedentary.

O types therefore generally do best on a higher fat and protein intake with carbohydrate intake being lower and properly timed (e.g., mostly after exercise). So that’s what we recommend: more fat and protein, less carbohydrate.

A nutrient distribution for this body type might be around 25% carbs, 35% protein, and 40% fat. Again, no math gymnastics. Just think higher fats and protein, lower carbs.

Here’s what that might look like using our portion control guide:

O type men begin by eating:

  • 2 palms of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 fists of vegetables at each meal;
  • 1 cupped handful of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 3 thumbs of fat dense foods at each meal.
O Type Diet Men How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for men, O type.

O type women begin by eating:

  • 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal;
  • 1 fist of vegetables at each meal;
  • 0.5 cupped handful of carb dense foods at each meal;
  • 2 thumbs of fat dense foods at each meal.
O Type Diet Women How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Portions for women, O type.

Step 3: Fine tune the details

So far we’ve covered the following steps:

  • Remove red flags and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Control your calorie intake without counting calories.
  • Adjust your food composition based on your body type.

What’s left?

In the grand scheme of things, everything else – meal frequency, calorie/carb cycling, workout nutrition – is just a minor tweak. A very minor tweak. But let’s address them anyway.

Meal frequency

For years dietitians and nutritionists (myself included) thought that the best approach to splitting up your daily food intake was to eat small meals frequently throughout the day.

From early research we assumed that this would speed up the metabolism, help control the hormones insulin and cortisol, and help better manage the appetite. However, a recent review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests otherwise.

What this means is that as long as we eat the right foods in the right amounts, meal frequency is a matter of personal preference.

You can eat lots of small meals each day (i.e. every few hours). Or you can eat a few big meals each day (i.e. with bigger time gaps between them).

Now, my advice is: Listen to your own body and apply the “how’s that workin’ for ya?” test.

If you’re covering all your other bases and your current meal frequency isn’t “workin’ for ya”, try switching it up. Experiment with fewer meals if you eat more frequently. And more meals if you eat less frequently.

Because either approach is valid, you’re free to find the approach that works best for you.

Calorie and carb cycling

Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, see your abs, or get back in shape, carb and calorie cycling can make a real difference.

(I know I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but it’s worth repeating. Please make sure deficiencies are eliminated, calories are controlled, and macronutrients are aligned appropriately – and that you’re doing all of this consistently before considering any of these fine-tuning strategies.)

While it may have a fancy name, carb cycling is simply eating more carbohydrates on some days – usually on high volume or high intensity days – and eating fewer carbohydrates on other days – usually low volume, low intensity, or off days.

We focus on carbohydrates (and not protein or fats) because carbs seem to influence body composition, how you look, and how you feel the most.

By changing carbohydrate and therefore calorie intake on particular days, we can keep fat loss going and metabolic rate humming along, without the ill effects of stringent calorie or carb restriction.

The carb and calorie cycling approach is pretty simple, and based on your activity.

  • On the days you’re not lifting weights – or days you’re just doing low intensity or short duration exercise – eat a baseline diet of mostly protein, vegetables and healthy fats with minimal carbs.
  • On the days you are lifting weights – or you’re doing longer duration high intensity exercise – add starchy carbs to your baseline diet.

And that’s pretty much it. No need to measure grams or count calories. Just follow a baseline diet on lower carb days. And add carbs on higher carb days.

For more on this idea, check out this All About Carb Cycling article. Or this excellent article on cycling carbs for muscle gain.

Just remember this: Removing deficiencies, controlling calorie intake, and beginning eating for your body type – and doing this all consistently – must come first. If you haven’t done those first, this strategy usually backfires.

Workout nutrition

What should you have before, during, and after your workout?

That’s a valid question. But it really doesn’t matter for anyone but an elite athlete training specifically for maximal muscle adaptation, and/or training with high volume and intensity (potentially multiple times every day).

If that’s you, then yes, eating an appropriate meal about 1-2 hours before and after training or competition may be important.

Also, for more advanced individuals, using a branched-chain amino acid  drink (which is lower in carbs and calories), or a protein plus carbohydrate drink (which is higher in carbs and calories), during training can make a real difference in terms of adaptation and recovery.

However, if you’re exercising for general health and fitness – or simply to look and feel better – you should only consider this question once you’ve:

  • eliminated deficiencies;
  • gotten your total food intake in check; and
  • started eating right for your body type.

And — might I gently remind you — done all the above consistently. Yes, every day. Over and over and over.

Then if you’re still looking for a little boost, my best recommendation is to continue to eat normally around your workout. And use a simple branched chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement. 5-15 grams mixed in 1 liter of water and sipped during an exercise session should do the trick.

Summary

If you feel like your nutrition’s off track – but aren’t sure what to do about it – hopefully this article has given you something new to consider and try.

Remember:

  • First, remove red flags and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Control your calorie intake without counting calories.
  • Consider your body type and activity level.
  • Observe your progress carefully. Adjust your intake as needed.
  • Do all of this consistently and long-term first, before adding any new strategies.

Remember, whether you’re a beginner and trying to get started in the right direction, or you’re experienced but still spinning your wheels, these steps – when applied in sequence – can make all the difference.

Want help sorting all this out?

This is simple stuff. But it’s not necessarily easy to put into practice, especially with the consistency needed to see results.

If you work in fitness, consider learning more about how to help your clients with their eating through our Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program.

And if you’re looking for help and guidance yourself, we’ll soon be taking a group of new clients looking for expert support, all as part of Precision Nutrition Coaching.

We accept a very small number of new clients every 6 months, and the spots in the program typically sell out in hours.

However, those motivated enough to put themselves on the presale list get to register 24 hours before everyone else. Plus, you’ll receive a big discount at registration.

So put your name on the list below – because, as always, spots are first come, first served, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Don't miss out! Get on the Precision Nutrition Coaching presale list today!

If you're interested in Precision Nutrition Coaching, we strongly recommend you join the presale list below.

We'll send you more info about the program and give you the chance to register 24 hours before everyone else. You'll also save over $400.