Eating to get lean

Feeling like it’s time to trim off the muffin top? Tired of carrying the spare tire?

I was. And not just because of aesthetics… I have a goal to dunk a basketball (for the first time… at 44 years of age). While doing jump training with a 10-lb medicine ball, I noticed the added weight I carried really cut down the height of my vertical jump–several inches in this case. It convinced me that if I were to ever achieve The Dunk, I would need to shed excess weight from my body.

So I worked out harder and longer… and I stayed the same weight. My body composition really didn’t change. But I stayed the course. In fact, I spent nearly a year hovering around the same weight (206 lbs) without much variance in my composition–save for a bit more muscle mass (the workouts were good for something). Despite the added muscle, I still carry some extra, unwanted weight–especially around my midsection.

It’s got to go if I will achieve The Dunk.

And working out, alone, is not enough.

I actually lost about 25 pounds to start my quest for The Dunk. I did it through calorie counting. The basic principle was simple: as long as I consumed fewer calories than expended through the day, I lost weight. Calorie-composition didn’t matter to me–it didn’t matter if my calories came through donuts and cheese squares or chicken and rice. As long as I ate fewer calories than I burned, I lost.

Until I hit this plateau of 206 lbs. To really transform my body into a leaner physique, I need to pay attention to what I eat. The following is a plan for leaning out and muscling up this 44-year old frame through nutrition.

How to eat to get lean:

Focus on proteins.

Before you start cutting anything out of your diet, start bringing in more protein. Sometimes, the trick to a healthier diet isn’t eating less, it’s merely eating different.

Here’s what I figured out: I want at least 25% of my caloric intake to come from proteins. Ideally, I’d like to get near 30%. Initially, that presented a challenge. I really needed to pay close attention to types of foods I was eating to gauge where my calories were coming from.

If you consistently workout, especially lifting weights, consider eating one gram of protein per pound of body weight. That became my focus… and it’s hard! Getting over 200 grams of protein in a day takes some forethought. I’m now dumping a can of tuna onto a side salad at dinner (in addition to the spaghetti with meat sauce I’m eating for the main course). But, once I got this down, I generally have a caloric deficit at the end of the day and I never feel hungry.

And here’s the best part: this quest for protein changed my entire view on eating throughout the day and affected my response rewards triggers.

I have a sweet tooth (don’t we all, really?). When I feel an urge to snack, it’s usually an urge for a sweet kind of snack. The science behind this urge suggests dopamine drives me to consume something sweet because sweet, sugar-dense foods are an easy way of consuming mass calories. But the quest of protein subverted that urge.

Now, instead of searching the pantry for something sweet, I’m searching for high-protein foods. The object of my dopamine-driven desire changed. I gave dopamine–the pleasure-driving chemical of the brain–a new objective. Now it wants protein.

Track what you eat.

Yup. Calorie counting and macronutrient calculations: I just don’t see any way around it. You’ll need to get a grasp on what you’re bringing in and what is going out. This is very similar to building a financial budget (and maybe just as fun). But it’s going to pay to know how many calories you’re bringing in per day and where those calories are coming from: are they proteins, fats, or carbs?

I use an app on my phone to track my food consumption–actually, I’m not sure if I’d do calorie and macronutrient tracking without it. Each time I sit down to eat, I input the quantities of what I’m eating.

A food scale has been really helpful, too. Using the scale lets me accurately detail how much protein I’m consuming because I know down to the fraction-of-the-ounce how much steak or chicken I’m eating.

It’s true that tracking is a bit of a pain. But the pain inflicts some discipline–because sometimes I’ll skip an unhealthy snack simply because I don’t want to go through the trouble (and associated guilt) of inputting it in my calorie tracker.

I use the Fitbit app, which works well for me since I also have a Fitbit watch. Many apps will fulfill the same roles, though–tracking your expended calories, your workouts, and allowing you to input your food.

Identify go-to meals.

Find the meals that work and stick to them. Steak and grilled zucchini is a great one. So is barbecue chicken and broccoli florets (and the broccoli is a testosterone booster).

I found that by identifying high-nutrition meals, I’m able to bring some balance to the not-so-good meals. For example, my family has two consistent meals through the week: Taco Tuesday and Pizza/Movie Friday. Both those meals are high-calorie, low-nutrient traps.

Since I know the nutrient value and the full-feeling produced by a can of chicken, I can subvert those meals a bit by going to the chicken. So on Pizza/Movie night, I limit my pizza intake and up my nutrient intake by dumping a can of chicken on a couple slices of pizza. It works. I’m eating two slices of pizza when I once ate four–and am downing some quality protein through the chicken. Plus I feel really, really full afterwards.

Eating lean need not mean we never get to eat the good stuff. It just means we will be aware of how we’re fueling our bodies… and making sure we have enough of the real good stuff, like protein, coming in.


I’m on this journey, too–still working my way towards the ideal weight and The Dunk. I hope you’ll check back in a see my improvement… and share your’s too.

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