By Dr John M. Berardi, The Greatest Nutritional Complaint

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr John M. Berardi is one of the world’s foremost experts in human performance and nutrition. Along with Dr John K. Williams, he has just completed his first book — Gourmet Nutrition, a collection of recipes, cooking tips, and nutritional strategies for a winning body. In addition to being a prolific author, Dr Berardi is also a sought-after speaker and a consultant to Olympic, professional and elite athletes and executives and recreational weightlifters serious about achieving optimal results. For more information about John, his team and the services he offers, visit www.johnberardi.com.

“Are you kidding, JB? Do you expect me to eat this stuff? Where’s the taste? Where’s the variety!?”

This is by far the nutritional complaint I hear most often from clients, athletes and seminar attendees. Ever since I started publishing articles on T-Nation six years ago, I’ve been bombarded with this complaint. And over the past two years, I’ve probably gotten at least one angry email a day, basically saying the same thing:

“This stuff is boring and tastes freakin’ terrible! Give me better food choices!”

For the longest time, I just dismissed the variety of complaints about type. It sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me for two reasons:

1) The “no variety” complaint sounds like just another weak excuse for giving up.

People stopped eating well and needed someone to blame. Of course, it’s not their fault they’re overweight. It’s their genes. Of course, it’s not their fault they’re not building muscle or recovering properly. It’s their job. They can’t be expected to eat (gasp!) at work! Of course, it’s not their fault they’ve got high blood glucose and high blood pressure. It’s that damn JB’s boring eating plan!

2) There’s no reason why great nutrition must necessarily mean boring, repetitive meals and bad tasting food.

You only need to look at my Berardi’s Kitchen articles (Part I and Part II) to see that the variety is almost unlimited. I practice what I preach, and my kitchen has more variety than most others I’ve seen. And if my kitchen is dull, an exciting kitchen must be some culinary amusement park, a veritable Six Flags of cuisine.

But despite all this, people still complain about variety. Quite frankly, it started to annoy me. So to squash this complaint once and for all (yeah, right), or at least buy me a brief reprieve from the anti-boredom coalition’s email campaign, I started to investigate the problem a little more seriously.

THE CLIENT SURVEY

The first step was an informal survey of former clients of mine. Usually, when a client ends his service tenure with me, I’ll send him a questionnaire regarding the experience. Among other things, I want to know why he ended his service so that I can continuously refine my coaching systems to get industry-beating results. I hadn’t taken a look at the numbers in a while, so the other day, I sat down and got to work.

When the results were in, I was happy to learn that most of my clients (about 83%) had ended for the only reason I accept as good: during their stay with me, they’d learned precisely how to design and monitor their training and nutrition plans. For my head coach, Carter Schoffer and I, that’s our goal in coaching — to make ourselves dispensable.

Once a client has learned how his own body responds to various training and nutrition protocols, he shouldn’t need us for anything beyond occasional support and troubleshooting.

But what about the other 17% of clients? Why did they stop? Well, that was the disappointing part, and they quit because they got sick of the food. One client, in particular, remarked, “I don’t think I’m cut out to eat such Spartan meals.”

Sick of the food? And since when did “Spartan” become a food-related adjective?

DON’T GO BLAMING THE SPARTANS.

Now, let me make something clear: these aren’t your average quitters. These are people who got results. These people lost fat, gained muscle, dropped 40 yards times, and drastically improved their health — but still quit. They had every reason to stay and keep going, but still, they left because they hated the food.

That’s just unacceptable, and as a good coach, I should’ve recognized how widespread this misunderstanding was. I’ve since built questions into the bi-weekly feedback reports I get from clients to spot this problem right away. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and this variety of nonsense is blazing out of control.

So what exactly is going on here? Are people just excusing their laziness, or is there some fundamental flaw in how they view good nutrition? And if it’s the latter, then what is this flaw, and how can it be fixed?

Weighty questions indeed, my friends. So let’s come up with some answers.

THE TASTE BUD APPROACH

All these years, I’ve had a standard response to complaints about taste and variety, and it goes something like this:

“Your taste sensation will change. Studies show that eventually, you’ll lose that sweet tooth and that love of a deep friend, trans-fat soaked garbage. Further, you’ll grow to prefer natural, healthy, richly textured foods, and you’ll even grow to like the crunchy freshness of fruits and veggies.”

And this comment is true. The study of taste is fascinating. You see, there are several factors affecting taste, including:

  1. Oral concentrations of different molecules in our foods. Our sense of taste is mediated by groups of cells (our taste buds) that sample oral concentrations of small molecules and report a taste sensation to our brainstem, the same area of our brain that senses pleasure.
  2. Airborne chemicals are inherent to our foods. Since our taste buds only sense bitter, salty, sweet and sour, the remainder of our sense of taste, about 70-75% of what we perceive as taste, actually comes from our sense of smell.
  3. Temperature. The perception of taste also appears to be influenced by the thermal stimulation of the tongue. When warmed, the tongue senses sweet; when chilled, it senses salty or sour.
  4. Nutrient Needs. Some research indicates that certain nutrient deficiencies can affect the taste as well, leading to a preference for foods that replenish that nutrient.

For instance, removing the adrenal glands in rats (which causes massive sodium loss) leads to the preference for salty water over regular water. Removal of the parathyroid glands (which causes calcium loss) leads to selecting water high in calcium chloride over water with high concentrations of sodium chloride instead. And insulin-induced hypoglycemia leads to the preference of delightful foods over other equal calorie or carbohydrate-dense foods.

Now, this is not the decisive factor. Witness the fat man’s preference for Krispy Kreme. Is he Krispy Kreme deficient? I think not. However, it should underline the multi-factorial nature of taste.

SURGE AND THE SCIENCE OF TASTE

Back when we were developing Biotest Surge, the science of taste allowed us to disguise the naturally bad taste of whey hydrolysate, one of the main ingredients in the formulation.

Have you ever tried to drink whey protein hydrolysate on its own? It must be one of the most wretched tasting compounds in existence. I remember getting an unflavored batch for a research study a few years ago and foolishly deciding to drink it straight up, no chaser. What a mistake. Can you say “projectile vomit?”

Biotest Surge is loaded with whey hydrolysate, and ask anyone, the stuff tastes great! So how did we do it? In developing the formula for Surge, we learned which taste buds sense the nasty whey hydrolysates, and then we found specific flavourings that compete for those same taste buds. So every time you use Surge, there’s a great race to those taste buds — and thankfully for all involved, the tasty flavourings win.

Here are a few more interesting facts:

  • Women tend to be better “tasters” than men, which may make them more selective and may allow them to distinguish between 800 types of chocolate.
  • Age leads to a loss in taste sensation, losing appetite and the desire to eat. That’s partly why nutrient deficiencies develop with age.
  • And finally, as mentioned earlier, our sense of taste will change with what we’re habitually eating.

Let me stress how important this final point is. I’ve seen people come to love foods they used to hate and turn those same foods into their favourite meals. Exhibit A: cottage cheese. Anyone who’s done this long enough knows a good cottage cheese flip-flop story. Such a flip-flop can even be induced instantly from time to time by having the subject taste the famous Cottage Cheese Peanut Butter Cup Concoction: cottage cheese, chocolate-flavoured Low-Carb Grow!, and natural peanut butter. This stuff is awesome.

But in the end, this discussion still doesn’t get the job done. People still demand variety and “better tasting” foods. So how can we respond to these demands?

SELF-ANALYSIS: VARIETY THE BERARDI WAY

I know one thing for sure: I’ve been doing this for years, day in and day out, and somehow I’ve managed both to stay large, lean and healthy year-round and stave off the “variety” demon. So after being bombarded with my one-millionth email castigating me to the depths of nutritional hell, I decided to start paying attention to what I was doing with my diet. Specifically, I began leafing through my nutritional programs, going back almost two years. I noticed four things:

1) The main food choices remained roughly the same over that entire period.

In other words, I’m consistently eating beef, eggs, beans, nuts, fruits and veggies. I’m not out hunting exotic animals on the plains of the Serengeti and dragging them home for a barbeque. (Although I do like my elk. Are there elk on the Serengeti?) For the most part, I eat stuff you can find on the perimeter of your local grocery store.

2) Although the choices stay the same, the way I prepare those foods rarely stays the same for longer than a few weeks at a time.

My meals are always changing in terms of which foods are combined and which seasonings and sauces are used. For a few weeks, I might eat 8oz of lean meat and spinach, carrot, apple and mixed nut salad (with flax oil and balsamic vinegar on top) for lunch. However, after those few weeks, I might make chilli out of that 8 oz by including a packet of chilli mix, carrots, green and red peppers, onions, cashews and one can of diced tomatoes. With different sauces, seasonings and cooking methods, I can come up with infinite variations of the same staples — as simple or as fancy as I like.

3) The meals that did stay the same for longer than a few weeks were the “magic bullet meals.”

Magic bullet meals are those meals that both fit into the nutrition plan and taste so good that I could probably eat them six times a day without growing tired of them. Everyone has a few of these. One meal that’s stood the test of time for me is my morning omelette. Every day, for the two year analysis period, I’ve eaten twelve egg whites, one yolk, one slice of cheese, spinach and one or two other omelette ingredients. Next to my omelette is a nice bowl of fresh fruit. I sometimes even eat this meal twice per day.

4) When I want to eat food that’s not on my plan, I save it for my “cheat ritual.”

Almost every Sunday night, I get together with a bunch of the guys and eat whatever the hell I want: pizza, ice cream, beer, whatever. As you might imagine, these are serious events attended only by like-minded individuals.

For instance, here’s what Carter ate last weekend: one extra-large pepperoni pizza, two Oreo ice cream cookies, one-third of a rather large chocolate cake, one package of Clodhoppers, a pint of Guinness and a spinach salad (to keep it clean). I’ll refrain from sharing my menu; I don’t want to frighten the women and children. But by Monday morning, we’re all back in business.

So what does this mean? Well, for one, my “palettization” theory was only partially correct. To account for how I’ve been able to do this, I’ve parsed out four basic rules, one from each of the observations above.

THE RULES

Rule 1: Stick to the Staples

The reality is that you will have to eat certain foods; there’s no way to get around it. But who cares? They’re easy to get accustomed to, especially if you prepare them right. Keep in mind that your sense of taste can and will change over time as long as you practice the proper habits and stick to the staples.

So what are the staples? Well, for a complete treatment of this, check out the “Berardi’s Kitchen” articles I mentioned above. But here’s the short version:

  • Lean Protein Sources: beef, chicken, turkey, fish, etc.
  • Fruits: berries, apples, pineapple, pears, peaches, plums, etc.
  • Vegetables: spinach, sweet peppers, carrots, broccoli, onions, etc.
  • Essential Fatty Acids: olive oil, flaxseed oil, fish oil.
  • Supplemental Carbohydrate: oatmeal, sweet potatoes, whole grain bread.You’ll also have to eliminate the “never-haves” or at least relegate them to cheat meals. So what are the “never-haves?”
  • Anything found in Carter’s cheat ritual meal!

Rule 2: Keep the Staples Constant, Change the Meals Often

To succeed in the long term, you’ll have to keep the staples constant. The foods mentioned in Rule 1 will always be a part of your diet. How then do you keep from being bored?

Answer: Learn to cook!

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you should enrol in a culinary school or waste your days watching Emeril, and I do mean to indicate that you need to know a little about flavouring and preparing food. Not a lot, mind you, just enough to prevent stagnation and keep your taste buds from withering away.

I’m honestly amazed by what bad cooks most people are. Basic cooking is just that — essential — and would take you no longer than a few hours to learn. More importantly, it’ll make all the difference between nutritional success and failure.

Think about it. For most people, much of their food is cooked for them: fast food, prepackaged or preflavored. How else can we account for the 157 pounds of sugar the average American eats per year? That’s about half a pound a day, folks! They’re not shovelling down teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar — this sugar is being systematically hidden in the foods they’re eating!

We need better solutions. Here are a few:

  • Read Ken Kinnan’s Massive Cooking. A great introduction to the topic, and it’s free.
  • Get some cooking tips from someone who knows, i.e., your mother. If you have one of those modern mothers who know even less than you do, go a little further up the family tree and ask your grandmother. Take what info you can apply to your own nutrition program and discard the rest. You’d be surprised that a spice here and there can change the meal completely.
  • Go to your local bookstore and grab a few basic cookbooks. Most meals can be modified to fit the plan by removing or substituting ingredients, and knowing the difference between rosemary and thyme will help you decide which to add. The goal is to build up a mental database of good meals you can make at any time and to get some inspiration when the meals start getting a little tiresome.
  • Stop by the newsstand and pick up a food magazine or, better yet, pick up a subscription. (And if buying girlie cooking magazines is embarrassing for you, you can send your girlfriend. It’s okay.) The regular arrival of new ideas will remind you that boredom isn’t a valid excuse.
  • Plug Alert: If you want something that specifically addresses the problem from the perspective of optimal nutrition, grab a copy of my new e-book, Gourmet Nutrition. Dr John K. Williams (one of the best healthy cooks on the planet) and I have put together over 100 great meals and all the cooking instructions you need. Sure, I’m biased, but these meals are awesome!

With these resources at your disposal, there’s no excuse for “variety complaints.” Get out there and start cooking. Stock your kitchen with the right foods, then mix and match to keep things lively.

Rule 3: Find Some “Magic Bullet Meals” and Keep Eating Them

Sometimes it’s not lack of variety that causes people to bail on good nutrition. Often it’s the very idea that combination is necessary that causes the problem. While I agree that you need to have all your nutritional bases covered, I want to dispel the myth that good nutrition requires you to create a completely new meal every time you eat.

Here’s the strategy: find one or two “magic bullet meals” — meals that fit into your plan and taste so good you could eat them every day — and eat them every day! Eat them twice a day if you have to. Don’t miss a meal or break your plan when you could double up on the best meal of the day.

As for the rest of the meals, you’ll need to constantly change them to stave off the dreaded boredom, according to Rule 2. Remember, keep the staples constant, but continually experiment with combinations, cooking, and flavouring.

Rule 4: Get a Cheating Ritual

No, this isn’t some adultery ceremony, and this is the preferred method for eating never-have foods without blowing the plan. My general rule on cheating is this: make sure that no more than 10% of your meals are missed or cheat meals. So if you’re eating six meals a day, seven days a week (for a total of 42 meals per week), then no more than four of those meals should be misses or cheats. If you can achieve 90% adherence — and anyone can, it doesn’t require “Spartan” discipline — you can get the results you want.

The catch, however, is that the 10% rule allows you to eat unplanned cheat meals. You know how that goes: “Well, that pizza does look good, but I should stick to the plan and eat the chicken salad . . . oh what the hell, gimme the pizza! I’ll consider it a cheat meal.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem. If you have the discipline to keep your cheat meals to under four per week, you can have them whenever you want. The problem arises when you allow a spontaneous, unplanned cheat meal to set off a chain of events (first pizza, then dessert, then fast food, etc.) that ends up in a nutritional derailment. Unfortunately, this happens more often than people care to admit, particularly in the early stages of a new plan.

It’s better to plan your cheat meals. And even better would be to schedule them around a social event (like a weekly get-together with the crew, a weekly restaurant night with your significant other, etc.), and ideally with social support (i.e., like-minded people to whom this event means as much as it does to you).

You have training partners in the gym for the same reason, and you should find nutrition partners who can keep you going down the right path. Then, schedule a weekly get-together where you eat whatever you want — understanding that what you’re eating is the exception, not the rule.

Incidentally, I think people immediately identify with the concept of “refeeding” (weekly breaks from otherwise strict diets) for this very reason. The psychological advantage of planning cheat meals is significant and is perhaps the primary reason for the popularity of the various refeeding diets.

I’ll add, though, that turning a cheat meal into an entire “cheat weekend,” as is sometimes advocated, will almost certainly slow your progress during a dieting phase. Unless there are other issues, I’ll usually keep it to a half-day or less to stay within the 10% zone. I’ve found that this is pretty close to an optimal balance between progress and psychological willingness to keep eating well.

YOUR HOMEWORK

I want this “variety” excuse eradicated. So in the discussion below, I want T-Nation readers to post:

  1. Tips and tricks to maintaining good nutrition over the long run.
  2. Your own personal “magic bullet meals,” the ones you could eat twice a day if need be.
  3. Your cheating rituals.

If one of your biggest nutritional complaints is the variety one, it’s high time you did something about it. Stop emailing me, pick one of the suggestions above (or below) and get moving. The solution is right in your kitchen!

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