Is it Really 80% Diet, 20% Nutrition? Trainer Explains
08/09/2022 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 17 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
Is it really 80% diet vs. 20% nutrition? It’s a good question given the statements quasi-mantra like status, as well as it’s general acceptance as a piece of ‘common wisdom’ that gets a lot of air time.
Let’s take a look.
The first thing to think about is- what does it really even mean?
Are we saying 80% of our efforts need to be directed towards our nutrition, whereas the remaining 20% of our finite energy needs to be dedicated towards training? Or, does it mean that the results are 80% driven by nutrition, whilst only 20% can be accounted for by your training?
Moreover, how do we even define effort?
This concept is going to warp and be warped by what you personally find difficult; some people are going to struggle to even get into the gym, either logistically or just on the principle of not actually enjoying training, whereas vice versa you may be the type of person who absolutely loves training, but really struggles with sticking to any sort of regimented, goal-oriented diet. In which case the question is begged— are you actually having to put more effort into your diet?
Enjoyment and fulfilment play a huge role in friction and adherence, how are we measuring those in terms of effort? You may be physically training ‘harder’ in the gym than Joe Bloggs next to you, but if he laments the idea of working out and it’s a huge emotional battle for him to even get in the door, who’s really putting in more effort?
From the get-go it’s pretty clear to see that we’re working with some very iffy metrics here.
That being said, here’s a little thought experiment for you…
Imagine we take two twins— up until now they've lived exactly the same lifestyle and obviously they've got the same genetics, we’ve removed all of the variables; picture two fundamentally identical human beings.
Now, we take one of them and give them the best nutrition protocol known to mankind, dreamt up and agreed on by the leading experts in the field (imagine that), and they follow it to a tee.
Next, we take the other twin and give him the best ‘hypertrophy’ or muscle gaining program in the world. Again, created and agreed upon by the world’s foremost experts and again, followed to the letter. In fact, he trains like an absolute beast.
With regards to movement, Twin Number One on the nutrition protocol just carries on his life as usual, he doesn't do any kind of formal exercise, such as it is, and just goes about his fairly sedentary, daily life: Heads to work; sits down, comes home; sits down, goes to bed; lays down. You know the drill.
Twin Number Two, when he’s not going full Arnold Schwarzenegger in the gym, just eats ad hoc, exactly as he was before. Exactly as most of the population do. Let’s assume that previously neither twin were gaining nor losing any weight, as such Twin Number Two continues eating at ‘maintenance calories’ throughout the experiment.
Now here’s where we have to make an imaginative leap. I want you suspend any notions you already have built up around the relative importance of training and nutrition and really use your deeper intuition to answer the following question.
Six weeks down the line, which twin do you think is going to have seen the most dramatic changes in their looks, performance and fitness? In fact, which twin do you think is most likely to have seen any changes at all in these regards, however subtle?
I know where my money is going, and that’s firmly squared away with our friend who’s been pumping iron like an absolute beast, whilst eating a thoroughly standard, western diet in a laissez faire manner.
Now, I’m not saying that our first twin who’s on the nutrition track has completely wasted his time— he may well have seen remarkable upturns in his general health, mood and wellbeing, which are not to be sniffed at. And of course, if we were to take a closer look at the numbers and ensure that he was eating in a caloric deficit across the course of the experiment, he would have lost weight, mostly from body fat, a claim we can’t guarantee for his brother.
I’m also not claiming that this trajectory is linear- at a certain point, depending on his specific goals, Twin Number Two may have to get serious about his eating habits.
No, I’m not saying this flips the script to an 80/20 split in favour of training, at all.
I think what this thought experiment illustrates is that we shouldn't downplay the importance of training in driving body composition changes. And, saying that training only accounts for 20% of your results, or should only account for 20% of your efforts (whatever that means) does just that.
Personally I believe a better framework of thinking is to view them as ‘multipliers’.
Let's go back to our imaginary siblings— if we now take the training guy, who's already seeing much better results than his twin, and we add in that nutrition protocol, he’s going to see an almost 10 fold return on his efforts, and a serious level up in his results. It’s less a case of adding nutrition to your training , and more a case of multiplying your results in training with nutrition.
They both need emphasis, and the subjective effort you're going have to put in to either is totally dependent on your personal preferences, lifestyle and struggles. If you don't mind a diet you're gonna sail through that part, if you love training, guess what? Easy street.
The point is, don’t allow yourself to become deterred if you find one aspect easier than the other.
Don’t give up on your training because you struggle to follow a diet, simply make your nutrition more manageable and up your efforts in the gym.
Don’t like the gym? Find the most enjoyable aspects of training that you can realistically stick to, and stick to them, all the while cracking on with culinary adventures into the world of good, balanced nutrition.
Don’t like either? Strike a balance where it’s sustainable, but still challenging, and don’t be afraid to be flexible in your approach, knowing that upping your efforts in one area at the cost of the other, may well result in no net loss, in the grand scheme of things.
Play the hand your dealt, until you draw a better card. After all, that’s all we can do right?
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