The Simple & Sensible Diet

Aim for Good Nutrition and a Healthy Weight

By Nick Tumminello

Nutrition can be a confusing topic. That’s why I’m going to tell you everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t) about how to eat in a simple, sensible, and realistic way to stay fit and to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
If you need to lose fat, the single most important factor is the relationship of how many calories you consume per day to the number you burn per day. The concept that you need to be in a caloric deficit in order to lose fat isn’t personal opinion, nor is it up for debate by so-called diet gurus. This is the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Fat is stored energy. In other words, fat loss is determined by burning more calories each day than you consume. Research comparing different diets has found that any reduced-calorie diet results in clinically meaningful fat loss, regardless of which macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) the diet emphasizes or avoids.1
Now, this isn’t to discount that some calories are more nutrient-dense than others; we’ve all heard the term empty calories before. So, you want to emphasize fresh, local fruits and vegetables and high-quality meats, eggs, and fish, while limiting refined foods, simple sugars, hydrogenated oil, and alcohol. Just understand that one can be well nourished and still be overfed. As important as it is to eat high quality, nutrient-dense foods, you can still gain fat from eating healthy if you eat too many calories relative to what you’re burning.
That said, actually counting calories is a pain in the you-know-what, and most people don’t need to bother doing it. The easiest approach is to emphasize the quality (i.e., nutrient density) of the foods you eat and see where that gets you—it spells success for most people, as fruits, vegetables, and lean meats are generally lower in calories than things like fast food and candy.

Complementary Eating
Complementary eating is a simple, practical, and realistic eating strategy you can use to ensure that each meal you eat is well balanced and emphasizes high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.
A complementary meal consists of four components:
1. Protein (beef, bison, chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, etc.)
2. Fibrous carbohydrate (fruits and vegetables)
3. Starchy carbohydrate (sweet potatoes, rice, oatmeal, etc.)
4. Fat (avocados, nuts, olive oil, etc.)
Size your meal components in this manner:
• Make the protein and fibrous veggies the largest portions on your plate. High-protein meals create a sense of fullness, which helps to reduce excessive caloric intake and promotes fat loss.
• Make the starchy carbohydrate and fruit smaller than the protein and veggies.
• Make the healthy fat the smallest serving on your plate.
We call this strategy complementary eating because each component of the meal complements the others to maximize nutritional benefits.
• Protein is the building block of muscle.
• Starchy carbohydrates are a great energy source.
• Fibrous carbohydrates move it all through the body and provide energy.
• Fat decreases inflammation, improves joint and heart health, and aids in disease prevention and cognitive function.
Meal sizes differ for everyone and should be based on how you feel and how much fuel your body requires that day. If you feel hungry within an hour or so after finishing your meal, you probably didn’t eat enough. On the flip side, if you feel full for hours, you probably ate too much. It comes down to common sense, intuition, and simply listening to your body.

Why Does This Work?
A calorie is a measure of heat, and your body is a heat machine. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the term used to describe the energy expended by our bodies in order to consume (bite, chew, and swallow) and process (digest, transport, metabolize, and store) food. In other words, certain foods require us to burn more calories than others, simply by eating them. Here’s the general breakdown:
• Fat is easy to digest. For every 100 calories of fat you eat, you only burn about 5 calories in the digestive process.
• Complex carbohydrates take more effort to digest.
For every 100 calories you ingest, you burn about 10
during digestion.
• Protein requires the most energy to digest because it is made up of 20 different amino acids—nine of which are essential amino acids supplied only through food. For every 100 calories of protein you eat, you burn approximately 25 calories to digest it.2
If most of your meals follow the complementary eating proportions described above, it is easy to see how you end up consuming fewer calories and burning more, while emphasizing more nutritious foods. Plus, there’s no unrealistic dieting and no need for calorie counting!

Splurge Meals
We all have high-fat, high-calorie foods that we love to eat. If you want to keep your sanity and keep your healthy eating manageable, you absolutely must eat those not-so-healthy foods you love—every once in a while. My advice is to follow the 85/15 rule. This means that if 85 percent of the time you eat in the way I’ve described here, then 15 percent of the time you can eat whatever you want. In real-world terms, that’s about one in every seven meals—so if you’re eating four meals per day, that means one of your meals can be in the “not-so-good-for-you” category every two days. That’s how moderation works, and that’s how you do a no-diet diet!

Nick Tumminello is the owner of Performance University, a fitness training and education company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He’s the author of the book Strength Training for Fat Loss (Human Kinetics, 2014) and writes a popular fitness training blog at

1. Frank M. Sacks et al., “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates,” New England Journal of Medicine 360 (2009): 859–873.
2. T. Halton and F. Hu, “The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety, and Weight Loss: A Critical Review,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23: 373–385.

To read this article in our digital issue, click here.