Are you putting in 110% effort in the gym but still not seeing the results you had hoped for? The problem might not be in your workout routine. Although you may be following a rigorous strength training and cardiovascular program, a vital link may be missing-proper nutrition. I’ve found over the years that most of my clients will focus and push themselves during a workout, but they all tend to go astray on the diet component of the program. The sad fact is, nutrition is about 90% of the battle when it comes to getting in shape. The results will not happen without the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and total calories!

This is where the meal diary comes in. It’s similar to a personal diary, but rather than recording the day’s events, you write down everything you eat and drink. This can be done in a workout log or even a standard notebook. Simply divide each day into sections-breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. All beverages need to be included-water, coffee, tea, milk, alcohol, etc. Little extras like condiments on your sandwich and cream in your coffee also need to be written down. Basic rule of thumb: if it goes in your mouth, it goes in the diary . Recording this information for a week will open your eyes to a lot of potential problem areas that may be slowing down progress toward your goals. It’s surprising how many nutritional mysteries can be cleared up by keeping a written record.

The “after” comments were all made before I even had a chance to review the diaries with each client. It’s amazing how writing down what you eat for a week can illustrate problem areas so clearly.

Once you have the diary filled out for a full week, it’s time to review it. Your objective is to see how well your nutritional efforts are supporting what you’re doing in the gym, or as I refer to it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. What are you doing well? What needs improvement? Are you getting too much or too little of certain items? Are there foods that should be cut out entirely?

The first thing I look at is beverages. Believe it or not, this area is every bit as important as solid food intake. Are you drinking enough water every day? If you’re walking around in a state of dehydration, this will affect not only your workout results but also your health.

Water is vital to so many processes in the body, including:

  1. Transporting nutrients
  2. Digestion and elimination
  3. Building muscle (muscles are composed of over 70% water)
  4. Burning Bodyfat
  5. Keeping the body cooled
  6. Hydrating the skin
  7. Energy level (nothing will make you fatigue faster than dehydration)

If you are in any state of dehydration, the body will slow down all processes to conserve water. Do you really want to hold back your ability to build lean muscle and burn body fat? Follow the ACSM standard and be aware of urine color throughout the day. If it’s not almost clear or the palest yellow, you’re dehydrated and need to consume more water. Be aware that any caffeinated drink is a diuretic-it will flush water out of your system. And for those using creatine, you must consume even more water than the normal individual. Creatine helps hold water in the muscles to make them appear larger and fuller-without enough water, you’ll experience muscle cramps.

What about other beverages?
Sometimes excess calorie consumption comes in liquid form-not a good thing if you’re trying to lose weight or get better muscle definition. Although fruit juice is relatively healthy (compared to a soft drink), it can sabotage your efforts through high sugar content and calories. Eating whole fruit is always a better choice-you’ll get more fiber and nutrients, without the heavy calorie toll of the juice. Alcohol takes a one-way trip to your body fat stores, as well as impairing muscle performance the following day. Try to avoid or consume in moderation. One word about protein shakes: know what you’re getting. This can be an excellent way to get more protein in the diet, but be aware of fat, sugar and calories. The real danger can be at the smoothie bars located in gyms. A concoction loaded with peanut butter, chocolate and bananas is not the best choice unless you’re an individual who has a hard time gaining weight. A large shake with high-calorie ingredients and yogurt can turn into a nutritional disaster when trying to get lean. As I once joked with a gym owner: “fatten’ em up at the juice bar and they have to keep coming back to work it off!” (He didn’t see the humor, but you get the point).

Whew! That was just beverages! Now what about your solid food intake?
First of all: breakfast. I know it’s cliche, but breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Your body has gone eight hours or so without food or water, and your metabolism will stay sluggish without food. Eating breakfast not only gives you energy for the day, but it also helps elevate your metabolism (your body burns calories during the process of digestion-this is also part of the reasoning behind eating 4-6 small meals per day). Skip this meal and you’re slowing down your metabolism-nobody wants that! I advise busy clients who are in a rush in the morning to have at least a cup of yogurt, piece of fruit, protein bar-just get something in your system to get your body started . Avoid the fast food joints-a slimy fried piece of something with cheese between 2 English muffins is not a good nutritional choice! General rule of thumb: if you can get it at a drive-thru window, it’s probably not a healthy food. Remember, we want to get your day off to a good start. Consuming excess fat and calories for breakfast can set the tone for the whole day-don’t do it!

So what about this 4-6 small meals per day? As I mentioned above, it helps elevate metabolism because every 3 hours or so your body is having to digest a meal or snack. This process requires calories, so you’re helping your body get leaner. The smaller meal size helps ensure that your body will have enough nutrients for immediate energy requirements, without storing a lot of calories as body fat. This is the problem with large meals: your body only needs a certain amount of food to keep you functioning healthily. Any amount in excess of this will be stored-as fat. With the 4-6 small meals, the aim is to give your body enough of the nutrients it needs to build lean muscle, while minimizing fat storage. Additionally, the body can only digest so much protein at one sitting. For an individual trying to put on muscle size, this allows him to get the extra protein he needs in a way that the body can efficiently utilize it. The constant feedings will also help maintain a stable blood sugar level, keeping your energy level constant.

As you can see, portion size plays an important role. The nutritionist’s rule that your protein source should be the size of your fist or a deck of cards (chicken breast, steak, etc), is also a good rule to follow for intake of starchy carbohydrates. Large quantities of potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread can quickly add up in terms of calories and body fat storage. Although I have serious issues with the Atkins Diet, I do believe we all need to cut down in this area.

A common thread I see in every meal diary is a serious lack of fruits and vegetables. There are so many nutrients that you can only get sufficient quantities of in this food group. Eating a variety will aid your training efforts and energy level. It’s so easy to increase your intake. If you’re on the go, pack a small cooler with portable fruits and vegetables-precut carrots, apples, bananas, broccoli, etc. Add frozen fruit to a protein shake in your blender. When getting a deli sandwich or salad, load it up with all your favorites. One nutritionist advises trying to eat a variety of colors. Color is often determined by nutrient content. For example, foods high is beta-carotene are an orange color (carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkin). Fruits and vegetables will also add the fiber your diet needs to help in digestion and elimination.

The little things add up. That creamer you put in your coffee. The whole fat mayo on your sandwich. Is it worth delaying your progress? That “little bit here and there” adds up if you have the cup of coffee 3-4 times a day and eat out for lunch. Why do it when there are low-fat and nonfat alternatives? Another thing-the candy dish at the office or home. I hear the justification all the time : “one little piece won’t hurt me.” Maybe not, but it won’t help you. How many times a day are you dipping into that candy dish? The results on the meal diary may shock you.

As important as it is to eat breakfast, it’s just as important to avoid late-night eating. Those midnight snacks before bed are headed to one place-body fat storage. If you must, make it a healthy low-calorie treat.

To make the most of the meal diary tool, analyze the results in combination with your workout log. Do they both add up to progress in your program? Look for trends-when do you tend to eat less healthy or stray off course? What causes this? Do your eating habits suffer when you work long hours? What about weekends? Business or pleasure travel? Times of high stress? Boredom? How did the day’s meals correlate with your energy level and quality of workout? If you are trying to gain weight, are you getting enough quality calories? If trying to lose weight, how many calories are you taking in? Can this be reduced?

Remember that the process of working out tears down your muscles-it’s the proper nutrition and rest that will help rebuild them. Are you giving your body everything it needs to accomplish this? Protein’s main job is to build and repair muscle-are you getting enough? Feeling fatigued by mid-afternoon? Excess caffeine and sugar intake can lead to an energy crash later. As you can see, it’s not necessary to make huge changes. A little tweaking and modifying of your current diet can lead to greater progress toward your goals. It helps to be aware of what you’re eating: calorie content, protein, carbohydrates, fats. Know what you’re putting in your body. It’s all very simple. What you eat will do one of two things: it will either help you build lean muscle, or promote storing body fat. Remembering this will help you to make healthier choices. Fried fish or grilled salmon? Fresh berries with whip topping or fudge cake? I think you know the answer!