Creative Dieting: Clean Eating Doesn't Have to Be Boring
Whether you’re getting ready for a bodybuilding competition, cutting to make weight for a certain sport, or just trying to tighten things up, dieting in a calorie deficit can feel restricting. But the good news is it doesn’t have to.
Naturally, there’s some discomfort that comes with cutting calories, but I’ve always been one for making the most out of everything you’ve got, even if all you’ve got is chicken and asparagus! It’s no secret I prefer a clean, whole-foods diet, but I take advantage of low-calorie add-ins and creative options to keep things from getting stagnant.
Whether you abide by the “rules” of clean eating, flexible dieting, or something in between, if you want to make the most of your calories, you can make even the most “diet-y” diet meal something to savor.
Eating for Volume
Volume eating is one of the best tricks when it comes to feeling satisfied on a calorically restricted diet, especially on low-carb days. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some nut butter, but the satiety that comes with a full belly is based on volume, not calorie intake. So, replacing the volume of food without replacing the calories is a great way to feel content while maintaining a deficit.1
High fiber foods, which are more slowly digested, generally give you the most bang for your calorie buck and tend to be lower in overall calories. This is why I love low-starch, high-fiber vegetables and more complex carbohydrates in my diet. I want to be able to eat the most amount food for my allotted energy intake.
"[T]ake advantage of low-calorie add-ins and creative options to keep things from getting stagnant."
I’ll often remove protein powder when dieting to ensure greater volume and satiety. As someone who needs a relatively low calorie intake on a cutting diet, 27g of protein coming from lean meats winds up being more fulfilling than 27g of protein in shake form.
I also change the way I combine certain food sources to stretch my food further. For example, instead of making pancakes with my egg whites and oatmeal, I will cook them separately, eating the oatmeal and egg whites each on their own with lots of non-starchy vegetables added. To me these small changes can make huge differences as the latter keeps my stomach full and satisfied.
In preparing certain foods, I often include more liquid than normal, again to amp up the volume. When I do have protein powder (currently once a day) I blend it with three trays of ice to make a huge bowl of protein ice cream or a giant shake that takes time to eat, can be savored, leaves me feeling full, and is the perfect thing to look forward to at the end of every day.
"[R]eplacing the volume of food without replacing the calories is a great way to feel content while maintaining a deficit."
I use a similar trick when I cook my oatmeal and try to squeeze as much water in as possible so it swells up even more for a big satisfying bowl first thing in the morning. I always recommend keeping a high water intake throughout the day for health and performance reasons, so the satiety and less hunger just happens to be a positive side effect!2
My final secret weapon for volume eating is gelatin. Gelatin is a great way to curb a sweet tooth and keep you feeling full with few added calories from protein. Plus, it gives you the added benefit of enhanced joint care. If the artificially sweetened Jell-O (sugar free, of course) isn’t for you, try using plain gelatin and flavoring it with stevia sweetened water enhancers.
How you prepare your food can not only stretch your calories further, but can also provide the variety needed to keep you sane if you’re working with limited food options. People who are miserable on their diet are miserable because not only are they eating the same thing every day, but they’re likely eating it in the exact same way.
I eat the same things every day, but it rarely feels like it because I’m creative with the ways I combine and prepare my foods. For example, I eat chicken and rice, twice a day, every day, but it doesn’t feel like the same thing as sometimes the chicken is ground, a full breast, on a skewer, in a patty, formed into “muffins,” you name it. It sounds simple, but being creative with your preparation and combinations can make the difference needed to enjoy your food.
"People who are miserable on their diet are miserable because not only are they eating the same thing every day, but they’re likely eating it in the exact same way."
So, if it’s all about being creative, who says egg whites have to be savory, not sweet? One of my favorite ways to eat egg whites is by adding vanilla, cinnamon, and stevia. Definitely not the norm, but it provides another option that mixes up my regular egg whites. Of course, I also have the option of making them hardboiled, scrambled, or into an omelet with some added vegetables. My vegetable sources are where I get a lot of my variety, not only in the types, but also in how I prepare them - everything from raw spiralled noodles, to roasted, to pureed, to keep things fresh and add variety.
Condiments, spices, and seasonings are your friends. I always check the label for added sugar or oils first, but I know what low-calorie condiments and seasonings work for my diet. Although not necessarily “clean” in the strict sense of the word, these additions are a great way to keep me from getting bored and feeling bland on a restricted diet.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Mustards and Hot Sauce: Yellow, apple cider vinegar, grainy, spicy, Dijon. Just make sure you check the label for added wine, sugar, and honey as true Dijon mustards have wine added, but many grocery store versions don’t. Mustard is the perfect way to add flavor as well as moisture and can be used to marinade, make salad dressings, or if you’re lazy like me, just for dipping. It goes on everything! And hot sauce, well, that speaks for itself!
- Sugar-Free Ketchup, Salsa, and Tomato Sauce: Although slightly higher in sugar, a little goes a long way and make big flavors. I love sugar-free ketchup (stevia sweetened) on eggs, salsa goes on just about anything, and tomato sauce is a great way to make a big bowl of spiralled or roasted vegetables and ground chicken almost as good as pasta.
- Low-Calorie Syrups: If artificial sweeteners aren’t for you, neither is this recommendation, but if you’re not against their use, then no/low calorie syrups and coffee flavorings are an amazing way to change the flavor of your foods. Sugar-free coffee syrups can be added to oatmeal, egg whites, and coffee itself (obviously) to mix up the flavor, as well as hit your sweet tooth craving. Sugar-free syrups like the ones from Walden Farms are another way to add variety into your meals and make you feel like you’re having a treat without the added calories. Walden Farms and similar companies offer lines of artificially sweetened syrups, sauces, and salad dressings and can often be found at supplement and health stores. If your grocery or pharmacy has a diabetic friendly section, they are often there, too.
- Spices: Spices are the variety of life - or vice versa. But either way, spice it up! Varying your spices is an easy, low-calorie, affordable way to change your foods. Spices like cayenne and chili powder have the added benefit of increased thermogenesis. Blackened chicken is one of my favorite ways to prepare chicken breast. It’s packed with flavor and is far from the sad plain chicken breast most think of when it comes to dieting.
Whether you’re a clean eater or a flexible dieter, I hope these tips can help you stretch your meals further and give you more flexibility in terms of taste and flavor. If you’re following a nutrition program or working with a coach, always double-check before bringing in any extras. The closer I get to the stage, the less I add to my foods in terms of condiments and spices. Simple is where I feel safe, but for now I appreciate the variety.
My Top 5 Favorites to Add to My Pre-Contest Diet
- Pickles! - Pickled green beans, banana peppers, jalapeños, cucumbers, you name it.
- Cauliflower - A secret weapon when it comes to volume! Riced or pureed cauliflower can be added to many recipes to stretch them out and keep you full.
- “Honey Mustard” or “Sweet and Sour Sauce” - I use grainy mustard and no-sugar-added pancake syrup to replicate honey mustard. Sugar-free ketchup and no-sugar-added pancake syrup replicates sweet and sour sauce.
- The Grill - Seriously, everything is better on the BBQ.
- Protein Ice Cream - Protein powder, sugar-free almond milk or water, and zero-calorie syrup. Top with nut butter and you’re in heaven.
Oh, and one more…
- Cocoa powder - Because it didn’t really fit anywhere else, and chocolate makes everything better.
Check out these related articles:
- How to Avoid the Fad Diet Cycle (and Keep the Weight Off)
- Orthorexia: When "Clean Eating" Goes Too Far
- A Step-by-Step Approach to Successful Fat Loss
- What's New On Breaking Muscle Today
1. De Graaf, C., et al. "Biomarkers of satiation and satiety." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2004; 79 (6): 946-961.
2. Dennis, E., et al. "Water Consumption Increases Weight Loss During a Hypocaloric Diet Intervention in Middle-aged and Older Adults". Obesity. 2010; 18 (2): 300-307. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.235
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