Getting lean can be a bit of a challenge for many. After all, we’re often bombarded with commercials showing us the latest burgers from McDonalds or the latest deals at Wendy’s.
Getting lean can seem even more impossible when it seems like you need to cut every single thing that you love out of your diet in order to get the physique that you want. We’re going to be real with you. If you want to stay lean, it’s all about balance. It’s about eating healthy but without totally restricting yourself.
It’s about flexibility but with an emphasis on good quality, whole foods. It’s about learning more about food as a fuel source and how your choices have a wider impact on your body. So, if you’re looking to get lean you’ve come to the right place! Read on for our tips on eating well for a leaner life.
Why Should You Eat Healthy?
So, you’re probably wondering why exactly you should eat healthy, and what that even means. Here it is, plain and simple: you should eat healthy because it’s good for your health.
Healthy eating can have a huge impact on your body. For instance;
- Eating healthy has been reported to prevent up to 80% of heart disease or stroke related diagnoses. That’s a pretty staggering number!
- Your diet can have a massive impact on your mood. Some studies have suggested that people who eat diets full of refined carbohydrates are much more likely to get worse symptoms of tiredness and depression.
- When you eat healthy, you lower your risks of getting certain types of cancer. For instance, foods such as berries and nuts are full of healthy antioxidants that protect your cells from getting damaged.
- Weight loss. You were expecting this one! Yes, most foods that are categorized as ‘healthy’ tend to be much lower in calories, and as such you are more likely to lose weight because you’re consuming fewer calories (Confused? Don’t worry – we’ll get into this later!) If you need a quick refresher, weight loss is great when you’re overweight as it can reduce your risk for conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more.
- It’s great for your teeth! You need to have a diet that has plenty of magnesium and calcium so that you can preserve your bone and teeth strength, which is particularly important as you get older.
To summarize, having a healthy diet is incredibly good for you, both physically and mentally.
Calories and Energy Balance Explained
If you’re trying to eat healthy to get lean, you’ll first need to understand how calories work. This requires a little bit of maths – that’s right folks, we’re doing the energy balance equation! And you thought that you’d left math equations behind in high school!
So what is the energy balance equation? In short, it’s basically the link between the energy that you put into your body and the energy that you spend throughout the day. For those of you that like this written down into basic mathematical terms, here’s the equation:
Energy input – energy output = energy balance.
Sounds simple, right? Well, in a way it is, but there are a number of nuances to it. Energy, in this case, is referred to as calories, so from here on out we will be calling it just that. There are a few different aspects to this, too.
Let’s start with the energy input. This basically refers to the kinds of things that you put into your body. For instance, let’s say that you ate an apple, which is roughly 50 calories. That means that your current energy input for the day without eating anything else is 50 calories.
Different foods have different calorie values according to the key macronutrients. For instance, protein and carbohydrates will give you around 4 calories per gram. If you eat fats though you’re taking in a lot more calories – 9 calories per gram.
It can be difficult to know how many calories you eat per day, but thankfully modern technology is incredibly helpful with this. To figure out how many calories you’re consuming each day, you can input the food into an app.
My Fitness Pal is a particularly good choice, since it allows you to scan items into the application so it will tell you the exact amount of calories you’ve eaten that day in accordance to the item you’ve scanned.
It’s also helpful to invest in a food scale so you can measure your food, as this will help you to get a much more accurate calorie reading.
So now that you know how calories work a little better in terms of input, you may be wondering how many calories you should be consuming per day. There’s no specific answer to this, as your calorie needs per day can differ depending on your age, sex, height and current weight.
For instance, a 5 foot 1 woman that weighs 147 pounds may need to eat a lot less than a 6 foot 1 265 pound man. In general though, it’s recommended that women eat 2000 calories a day, and men eat around 2500 calories a day.
For your specific calorie needs though, it’s better to use our online calculator to figure out your specific calorie needs. As you may have already guessed, your energy output or expenditure refers to things like movement. You will also have something called a basal metabolic rate to take into account.
Your BMR refers to the amount of calories that your body will automatically burn at rest, and this makes up the vast majority of your calories in any given day. If you also exercise and move a lot throughout the day, such as for your job, then you’re going to need more calories in order to survive.
You can also burn calories from doing things such as eating – this is known as the thermic effect of food. For instance, if you eat protein you’re likely to burn more calories simply from eating it than you would burn if you ate carbohydrates or fats.
When people think of ‘healthy eating’ they usually think about whole foods. These are just foods cooked in their most basic form. But the question is, why are these foods in specific considered healthy? It ultimately comes down to the thermic effect of food, again.
For instance, if you eat a lean chicken breast which consists primarily of protein, you’re going to burn more calories than if you eat a Big Mac meal from McDonalds since that contains more fat (the beef burger is protein, but it’s usually dripping in fat).
Not only that, but a lot of non whole foods are also covered in other things such as preservatives or things that will make them taste better, which adds extra calories. Whole foods are generally significantly more filling too.
Protein in specific is low in calories but it also fills you up more easily, which means that you’re less likely to eat other stuff throughout the day. Other things like vegetables are full of fibrous carbohydrates, which also contribute to your satiety.
Having a healthy diet comes down to having a balance. A balance of what you may ask? Well, the macronutrients of course! There are a lot of nutrients that you need to keep your body going throughout the day, but there are three key ones.
These are proteins, fats and carbohydrates. They all play vital roles in your diet and they all have different impacts on your body.
Your body loves carbohydrates.
This is mainly because your body finds it a lot easier to turn carbohydrates into energy than it does with any other macronutrient.
For this reason, eating carbohydrates can often give you a quick energy boost – it’s part of the reason why carbohydrates are often recommended immediately before or after a workout.
Ideally, you should be incorporating complex carbs like whole grains, rice and legumes into your daily diet rather than simple carbohydrates such as sugar.
Protein is a pretty big deal – it’s basically like the Taylor Swift of the macronutrients. Why is protein so important?
Well, for starters, protein will give your body a lot of super important amino acids, and these are vital for your muscles, brain, blood hair, and more.
Note in specific that we’ve mentioned your muscles though.
If you’re planning on doing anything that requires you to use your muscles such as lifting weights, you will want to make sure that you’ve consumed a lot of protein in order to ensure that your muscles repair properly after the exercise.
Protein is also important since it can transport vital nutrients and oxygen around your body. If you want to stay full for longer after eating too, eating protein is the way to go. Some examples of protein include lean meats such as chicken, eggs, and lentils.
Despite what many people may tell you, fats are indeed essential for maintaining a healthy diet. Fat can give you a lot of energy in the event that you are low in calories.
It’s important for ensuring that your cells function properly and it helps to keep you warm. Ideally though, when it comes to consuming fats you should be gravitating towards unsaturated fats such as nuts and avocado, or things like salmon or tuna.
In addition to your macronutrients, you also need to make sure that you’re getting plenty of micronutrients into your diet too!
Magnesium is vital for helping over 300 of your enzyme reactions to work correctly. It’s especially important for helping to keep your blood pressure well regulated.
Potassium is very important for helping to reduce blood pressure, retaining water, and it’s important for balancing your fluids. It also helps with things like your nerve signals and muscle contractions.
Iron has a number of vital functions in the body, but it’s primarily responsible for producing red blood cells. These are essential for helping to transport the oxygen throughout your body.
You’ve probably heard this before, but calcium is vital for helping to make sure that your bones stay strong! It’s also good for your teeth, your nerves, and your muscles.
You also need to consider your different vitamins. Vitamins also play a vital role in your general health.
For instance, Vitamin A is important for maintaining normal vision, keeping your immune system in working order and it’s also important for human reproduction.
Your B vitamins help to keep your nervous system in working order and it also helps your body to break down the energy from your food.
If you’re deficient in any vitamins, it can often help to take a deeper look at what dietary changes you can make to improve your vitamin levels.
Healthy Foods to Eat
So when it comes to eating healthy, what exactly should you be eating? Here are a couple of healthy foods that you can eat to help you to get lean!
We bet that you saw this coming! Yes, vegetables should be the staple of any healthy diet. Vegetables contain a whole bunch of healthy vitamins and minerals like we mentioned above.
They also contain fiber, and this is important for keeping your gut in good working order.
Many people may not be big fans of vegetables, but you would be happy to know that you don’t need to eat them plain.
You can build them into meals, for instance you can use onions in a dish to add a little extra kick to your meal. Vegetables are also very low in calories, meaning that you can eat a lot more of them and feel full.
Naturally, you’ll still need to watch your calories, but with vegetables, you can eat a larger volume without it being a big issue.
Much like vegetables, fruits are usually quite low in calories which means that you can eat a lot more of them.
They also have a bunch of extra benefits. For instance, fruits contain a lot of fiber, and minerals and vitamins.
One of the examples is vitamin C, which is vital for ensuring that your body tissues grow and repair like they should.
Fruits are even high in antioxidants, which can help your body to fight off nasty free radicals that can result in problems such as cancer and can damage the good cells in your body.
Since fruits are also high in potassium, they can also help to lower blood pressure and the risk of getting kidney stones may be reduced when you eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. Oh, and fruits have a lot of water content and this helps with keeping you hydrated throughout the day.
Meat and fish
Remember that protein that we talked about earlier in this article? Well, eating meat and fish is a great way to get some protein into your diet!
Not only are meat and fish tasty, but they are also full of iron which can help to stave away anemia, but they’re also really good for your bone strength.
Fish in particular is really good for you since it contains omega 3 fatty acids.
What are these, you ask? Well, these are basically nutrients that work really hard to keep your brain and your heart healthy. In short, if you’re not following a vegan or a vegetarian diet, it’s a great idea to get a little bit of extra meat and fish into your diet if you can.
Nuts and seeds
Of course, if you are following a vegan or a vegetarian diet and you need to find an alternate protein source, nuts and seeds are a great choice.
These tiny miracles pack a punch when it comes to protein, but they also contain a lot of healthy fats, vitamins and fibers to keep your body ticking over like it should be.
Nuts come in lots of different varieties, such as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and more. This means that they’re very versatile for adding to dishes. You’ll just need to make sure that you don’t have an allergy to either of them, since nut and seed allergies are rather common.
Eggs are another fantastic source of protein that are definitely worth incorporating into your diet. They’re usually very affordable, and they also contain a bunch of other important vitamins such as vitamin B2, vitamin D and zinc, just to name a few.
They’re relatively low in calories, and they can be used in all sorts of different recipes such as for healthy pancakes or just some boiled eggs and toast. The possibilities are endless!
If you’re looking to get a little bit of calcium into your diet, eating or drinking dairy products is a good way to do it.
There are a number of great nutrients in dairy products, such as vitamin d, potassium, vitamin b12 and vitamin b2, among others.
Different dairy products have varying amounts of calories, of course, so you will need to check that before you consume. Dairy products are particularly good if they come from grass fed cows.
It’s always important to get some good, healthy starches into your diet. The primary reason is because foods that are particularly starchy are great as an energy source.
They aren’t very high in calories, though you will need to check the sorts of additional fats that you choose to use since these can make them higher in calories. Starchy foods also contain a lot of fiber, along with healthy vitamins and minerals like iron and calcium.
Beans and legumes
If you’re on a vegetarian or vegan based diet, beans and legumes are truly a dietary staple when you want to start eating healthier.
They contain very few calories and are a fantastic source of protein.
They tend to be very low in fat, and they are high in important vitamins and minerals like iron, folate and B vitamins.
Foods to Avoid
So now that you know about what foods you should be eating, what foods should you cut down on or avoid? Here’s everything that you need to know.
Sugar based products
Let’s just get this straight – you don’t have to totally avoid sugar, just like you don’t need to completely avoid the other foods on this list. You just need to reduce the amount that you eat. But why in specific should you reduce the amount of sugar that you eat?
One of the reasons is because of the calorie content. You will notice this with many of the foods that we’ve said to avoid, but sugary foods are rather high in calories which means that it’s a lot harder to get lean if you eat a lot of sugary foods.
Sugar in excess can also lead to issues with your blood sugar and can even put you at a higher risk of getting heart disease.
The chances are that you’ve probably already heard that trans fats are bad for you. Not everyone is sure why, however.
Trans fats are basically a type of unsaturated fat. They may come from cattle as a result of bacteria from the stomachs of the animals.
Eating them in excess can be very bad for you, and has been shown to give you a higher risk of getting heart disease.
There’s also some limited evidence to suggest that your insulin levels can also be affected by eating too many trans fats. You will usually find trans fats in things such as processed foods.
There’s a big difference between complex and refined carbs. The biggest problem is that refined carbohydrates tend to be stripped down of their essential fibers and nutrients. They’re also incredibly easy to overeat which can sometimes lead to weight gain later down the line.
There are a number of refined carbs that may be a current staple of your diet, such as pasta, white flour, white bread, breakfast cereals and things like sweets and pastries.
Some data also suggests that refined carbs can increase the triglyceride levels in your blood, which can sometimes lead to heart disease and diabetes if consumed in excess.
Despite the fact that these oils are made out of vegetables, they can be very bad for you if consumed in high amounts.
Vegetable oils are often very high in fat, and they contain a lot of calories which means that eating a lot of vegetable oil can sometimes lead to weight gain.
The chances are that someone has probably already told you that processed foods are bad for you – we’re pretty sure we’ve already mentioned it once!
But what exactly is a processed food and why is it bad for you?
Well, the name basically says it all – if the food has been altered in some capacity when it was prepared, then it’s processed.
Food can be processed in a huge number of ways, such as baking, freezing and drying.
Not every one of them is unhealthy but manufacturers often add extra preservatives and salts, which is what can make them unhealthy. Some common processed foods include bacon, dried fruits, microwave meals, microwave popcorn and instant noodles.
If you want to stay lean, it’s important that you practice portion control in some capacity. Even healthy foods contain calories, and if you eat too much of anything it can put you in a calories surplus which can in turn result in weight gain.
So how exactly do you practice portion control? The best way is by using a food scale. Food scales are incredibly affordable, and you can get most of them for under $20.
To use it, you simply need to put the food item in question onto the scale and it will give you a measurement in your preferred imperial or metric measure. For instance, it may tell you that you have 55 grams worth of apples.
Once you have weighed your food, you can then input the data into an app such as MyFitnessPal so that you can see the number of calories you will be consuming when you eat that particular item.
For instance, if you buy a pink lady apple from Walmart, and you plan on eating 100g of it, this may translate to around 55 calories. You can then do the same thing with other items that you eat throughout the day which will all add up to a certain amount of calories per day.
Of course, not everyone likes to count calories. In this case, you can also count macros. With this, an app can also help. If you take MyFitnessPal, for instance, there’s a nutrients tab at the bottom of the app that will show you how many grams of each macronutrient you’ve eaten per day.
You can set yourself a particular macro target based on your specific needs, and this will help you to practice portion control throughout the day. If you are planning on calculating your food requirements using macros or calories though, a food scale is a must have.
Tailor Your Diet
There are a number of ways that you can start to eat healthier to get lean, and different methods will work in varied ways for certain people. Here are two of the main diets to consider, though.
The first method of getting lean is through flexible dieting.
This type of diet is based on macronutrients, so you’ll basically track protein, fats and carbohydrates throughout the day and set yourself a goal on how many you should eat throughout the day of each macro group.
There are a number of different benefits to flexible dieting. For starters, this is a very easy method to follow.
Unlike diets such as keto or paleo, you don’t have to follow any overly arduous recipes or food plans. You can basically eat the sorts of foods that you like, so long as you stay in your macronutrient targets.
The method is also great for people that don’t cope well with restricting. It’s quite common to hear people referring to foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ This sort of moral label does not need to be applied to foods with macro counting since nothing is off limits.
As long as you stay within your macros, you can essentially eat whatever you want. It’s not a restrictive diet, and it’s a great choice for people that need specific nutrients.
Flexible dieting is appealing to many people because it’s not necessarily a diet, it’s more of a lifestyle which means that it’s sustainable as a long term option.
To follow this diet, you’ll need to figure out your macro needs. Once you have figured out how many macros you need, either by following a guide or by using an online macro calculator, you can then start tracking your calories.
You can do this on paper or you can use an app, since there are plenty of macro apps out there that will calculate your macros for you. You’ll also need to pay attention to nutritional labels, and you will need to use a food scale to precisely input your macro data into the app of your choice. You can track your progress over time then.
This flexible dieting approach is ideal for many people, and it can give you some great results so long as you have the patience to stick it out for a while.
Calorie counting is one of the most popular ways out there to get lean. We’ve already gone into calorie counting a little in this guide, but here’s a refresher.
Calorie counting works on the principle that we all need a certain number of calories each day in order to function as we should. You burn calories just from simply existing, but you burn more from things like movement, eating and talking.
In order to lose weight you will need to be in a calorie deficit. For instance, if you need around 2000 calories a day in order to maintain your weight, you may eat in a calorie deficit of 500 calories to lose weight. In short, this would mean you would eat 1500 calories a day.
If you eat 3500 calories fewer a week, you can then lose the equivalent of around 1 pound a week. Of course, this isn’t an exact science since we are all different and as such our metabolisms can be different, but this is just a rough guideline.
You could also be in something as small as a 100 calorie deficit or something in between – what matters is that you consume fewer calories than you burn. You can achieve this by also increasing the amount of movement that you get throughout the day, since this means you will have higher calorie needs.
Calorie counting requires very few things – all you really need is some method of tracking calories and you need a food scale so that you can see how much you’re eating throughout the day.
It’s a great approach for many people, since it’s still fairly flexible and generally doesn’t require you to cut out entire food groups so that you can get lean. You can eat anything within reason, so long as you eat at or under your daily calorie allowance.
With that being said though, it is better to opt for healthy, low calorie foods, since you will be able to eat a higher volume of food and stay satiated for longer.
Calorie counting isn’t the right choice for everyone though. It can be easy to get obsessed with the numbers and many people will feel like this method is a little restrictive, so they may opt for something else such as flexible dieting or intuitive eating, which relies on eating in accordance to your own hunger cues throughout the day.
Combine Eating Healthy with Healthy Life Choices
While your diet is a massive part of your general health, it isn’t the only thing that’s important. It’s also pretty critical that you practice healthy habits in other parts of your life too. Two of the main things that you should work on if you want to get lean for a healthier lifestyle is your sleep and your exercise.
Movement is good for you, so if you want to have a healthier lifestyle it’s certainly something that you need to start incorporating into your daily lifestyle.
One of the main reasons besides overeating that people gain weight is because they lead a sedentary lifestyle.
If you stay mostly sat down during the day with minimal movement and you’re eating a lot of calories, then you are going to gain weight.
Exercise is important for more than just weight management, however. Staying active can help you to have better physical health, and can reduce your risks of getting a lot of diseases, such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and various cardiovascular illnesses. Exercise is also vital for your mental health.
Now, we’re all busy people. For that reason, it can seem really difficult to fit regular physical activity into your routine. You don’t need to dedicate an hour to a workout every day to get more active, however.
Something as simple as taking the bus to work and getting off a few stops before your destination is just one small way to get just a little bit more movement into your way. Even better, if you can then you should try to walk or cycle to work instead of taking the car.
If you are going to see friends and family, you could also try to go on a walk with them to get some movement into your day in a fun way. If you do want to dedicate a bit of time to exercise, you don’t have to run on a treadmill for an hour unless you want to. You can exercise in a way that best suits you.
For instance, if you like to dance you can follow an online dance workout or join a dedicated dance class. You could do other activities such as boxing or even more obscure activities like wrestling.
If you aren’t sure how to keep up with a new activity, you can also set yourself targets or use something like a fitness tracker to keep you motivated.
Sleep is one of the main pillars of your health. If you aren’t sleeping well, it can spell trouble for many of your weight loss efforts.
In fact, sleep can actually have a huge impact on your appetite.
This is because sleep can impact how your body regulates Ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that are responsible for your hunger levels. Sleep can even influence the sorts of foods that you are interested in eating.
For instance, if you haven’t had a lot of sleep lately you may find yourself gravitating towards calorically dense foods. Therefore, if you are struggling with weight loss, you may also want to have a look at how you’re sleeping. There are a number of ways that you can get better sleep quality.
For starters, you should try to have a regular sleep schedule if you are able to do so. You should be trying to get around 6 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Trying to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time every day is beneficial for keeping you on schedule.
In addition to this, make sure that your room is suitable for sleeping. You can do this by reducing the amount of light and noise in the room. You should also check that your mattress is comfortable enough for you to sleep on.
Keeping a sleep diary can help you to keep track of your sleep progress. With time, you should sleep much better and this will help you to stay more energized, which is important for staying lean.
Summary – Eat Well!
Getting lean can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be! Often it’s just a matter of making substitutions for unhealthy foods, and making a conscious decision to get more healthy foods into your diet. With time, you’re sure to get much leaner and have a healthier lifestyle by following the tips mentioned above.