A Healthy Eating Plan For When You’re Hitting The Gym Hard

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If you want to make a big difference to how you look and feel in a short space of time, you’re going to have to follow a diet that feels like punishment – right? You know the kind of thing. You eat a few broccoli florets and a small portion of white fish every few hours, except on Sundays when you get three sniffs of a rasher of bacon as a treat.

That was the view I held until earlier this year and I now know that my preconceptions were wrong. I know they were wrong because a few months ago I did my first ever body transformation, turning myself from an overweight 37-year-old into a Men’s Fitness cover model in just eight weeks. Even better, I didn’t just get to sniff the bacon. I got to eat it. With a couple of fried eggs. In a nice big sandwich with brown sauce.

Fitness Magazine

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In fact nothing about the approach to food that I used, which is outlined (along with all the workouts I followed) in the New Body Plan, was extreme or restrictive. I’m happy to report that you can make a dramatic change to your physique without making your life a misery.

The other misconception I held is that if you make a swift and radical change to your body shape, the methods used must be unsustainable. Well, I’ve got positive news for you there too. That’s simply not the case – if you use a smart approach. As I write, it’s about four months since I finished my eight-week plan and I look better than ever. I’ve continued to use the training and nutrition principles outlined in the book and, as a result, I feel great. In truth, I don’t really have to think that much about what I eat because new, positive habits have become ingrained to the extent that they’re now second nature.

Changing man

There were a few reasons why I started the New Body Plan project. One of them, I’ll freely admit, was vanity. I wanted to look better naked. I wanted to feel better about stripping off (just the top half, this time) at the beach. But there were noble motivations too. I wanted to prove that an ordinary person could achieve extraordinary results while using methods that don’t just make you look better but also make you feel happier and healthier.

Why did I feel that was important? Well, while there’s more information about healthy eating out there than ever before, there’s also more misinformation out there than ever before. Every day you’re bombarded with conflicting messages that make it harder and harder to know who you should trust. Should you listen to the woman on Instagram who only eats plums? Or the former banker on Facebook who insists that you catch, kill and cook all of your own food? Or should you miss the next mortgage repayment so you can “spiritually detox” by bathing in unpasteurised llama milk while smoking activated charcoal that has been blessed by a Tibetan mountain goat?

Frankly, the whole thing’s a macronutrient minefield. So what I wanted to do was make things as simple and effective as possible, rather than using complexity to create the illusion of authority. Here are some of the key nutrition ideas behind the plan.

1. Think big

As in wins, that is. Get the big stuff sorted first, get great at the basics and then add more complex stuff as you progress. So, rather than obsessing about nutrient timing, start by focusing on what and how much you’re eating. If you fail to get the big things in place because you’re sweating the small stuff, you’re not going to maximise your potential. My advice to anyone who is undertaking a transformation without the support of a personal trainer or a nutritionist is to keep everything as simple as possible. The fewer things you have to worry about, the less pressure there is and the greater your chances of sticking to the plan.

2. Never say never

When we were constructing the nutrition system for New Body Plan we created the 90% Nutrition Rule. This means that you eat well for at least 90% of the time, but the rest of the time you can eat what you want. As a result, nothing is completely off-limits and if you do eat something that would be considered a slip-up on a more strict plan then you don’t have to feel guilty about it.

That, according to New Body Plan reader Darren Smith, was a “game changer” that helped him to lose over 8kg of fat in just eight weeks. “It removed the thing I struggle with most, which is wanting something I can’t have,” he says. “I knew that if I wanted some chocolate I could have it which, in itself, stopped me wanting one. Psychologically, it was great.”

The approach is supported by leading nutritionists, such as Krista Scott-Dixon form Precision Nutrition. “Most people do best in both the short term and the long term when eating well 80-90% of the time: 80% works for more modest goals; and 90% for achieving more challenging goals,” she says. “The ‘all or nothing’ approach rarely gets you all – it usually gets you nothing! A flexible eating approach removes the pressure of trying to be perfect all day, every day.”

3. Ask yourself why

Before you start, take some time to think about why you’re undertaking a transformation and how much it means to you. I wanted to make a difference. To look different. To feel different. And I wanted to do it because my partner was expecting our first child and I wanted to be in great health when I welcomed him into the world. So I was clear about my motivation and how much it mattered to me, and that’s why I got a positive result. If it didn’t matter that much, I doubt I’d have got the same outcome.

4. Don’t rely on willpower

Once you’ve identified your motivation, your willpower is the force that drives you to success and helps your steer clear of the office biscuit tin, right? Not so much. In fact, “mastering temptations is not solely a function of personal motivation,” says Kerry Patterson, co-author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. “When it comes to changing our behaviour, our primary problem isn’t that we’re weak, it’s that we’re blind - and when it comes to habits, what you can’t see is usually what’s controlling you. There may be half a dozen sources of influence sustaining a bad habit.”

Patterson’s advice is to identify those influences and then set in place some simple skills or adjustments that help you to stay on track. If, say, your walk to work takes you past a café and every morning you buy a large mocha with an almond croissant, instead of trying to scurry past with your eyes down while trying not to smell the freshly baked pastry, he recommends taking a different route. The same goes for the biscuits in your cupboard or the beer in your fridge. If they’re out of sight you won’t keep getting reminded that you want them.

5. Get kitted out

While you’re getting rid of unhelpful items from your kitchen, you can replace them with stuff that’s likely to help you stay on track. I bought a cool-bag so I could take my lunch into work. I bought freezer bags so I could chop up bananas, freeze them and eat them with yogurt – a surprisingly good substitute for ice cream. Doing a big weekly shop and some food prep on a Sunday will also set you up for a successful week and save both time and money in the long run. You may also find that it’s useful to record what you eat because it helps you think more about the choices you’re making.

6. Enjoy it

Instead of seeing your transformation as a period of sacrifice, see it as one of opportunity. It’s a chance to upgrade your cooking skills, try new dishes and use what you eat to improve your energy levels, mood, sleep and physique. And remember, just because something is healthy doesn’t mean it has to be boring or tasteless. It doesn’t even have to be difficult, as the dishes below prove. They’re a sample of some of the meals I made while I was on the plan – exactly the kind of food that got me into cover model shape.

Angry Eggs And Avocado

Angry Eggs And Avocado

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Prep time 5 minutes Cook time 5 minutes

This is a quick and tasty breakfast or brunch dish that takes the hassle out of poaching eggs. For years I steered clear of poached eggs because I was so useless at making them but one simple trick means you can make perfect ones every time. I call this dish “angry eggs” because it was inspired by the Italian word arrabbiata (literal translation: “angry”), which is associated with chilli-powered plates. Our recipe contains a spicy kick to give the dish a lift and add an extra fat-burning factor. Enjoy!

Ingredients (serves one)

  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ an avocado
  • 1 slice wholemeal bread
  • Squeeze of lime juice
  • Chilli flakes
  • Salt and pepper

Optional extras

  • Handful of small tomatoes and spinach

To make

  1. Toast the bread.
  2. Scoop out the flesh of the avocado half and mash it in a bowl. Add a generous squeeze of lime juice and give it a final mix. Spread the avocado mix onto the toast.
  3. Bring a pan of water (about 4-5cm deep) to the boil.
  4. Break an egg into a ramekin. When the water is gently bubbling, slide the egg into the pan. Doing it this way, as opposed to cracking it straight in, helps to keep the egg together and saves you getting a rubbery white and an uncooked yolk. Repeat the process with the other egg so that both eggs are poaching in the pan simultaneously.
  5. When the eggs are done, take them out of the pan and place them on a square of kitchen roll to absorb excess moisture.
  6. Place the eggs on top of the avocado toast and season with chilli flakes, salt and pepper.

Calories 361, protein 19g, carbs 12g, fat 27g

Swaps and tips

Fast-track your fat loss If you want to accelerate your fat loss efforts, there are a couple of easy ways to adapt this meal. The first thing we’d remove is half of the bread. That saves about 30 calories but doesn’t affect the protein or healthy fat content. If you’re feeling good on a low-carb diet, you could leave out the bread altogether. And if you’re trying to really reduce the calorie count of your meals, halving the avocado portion will remove about 70 calories without making much of an impact on the overall flavour.

Body benefits

Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, which is in the white, and heart-healthy fats, which are in the yolk. They also contain a treasure trove of vitamins: 10% of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin D is found in an egg yolk, along with vitamins A, B6, B12, E and K.

Chilli can aid fat-loss efforts because their heat – caused by a compound called capsaicin – increases your metabolic rate, which is how quickly your body burns calories. Australian research recently discovered that certain compounds in chilli peppers also activate receptors in the stomach that increase feelings of fullness.

Avocados are an excellent source of fibre, which can help you to feel full. They also contain generous hits of a variety of vitamins including B6, C, E and K. They have a positive impact on heart health and have been shown in studies to help reduce body mass index when eaten as part of a healthy diet.

Super-Caesar Salad

Super-Caesar Salad

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Prep time 5 minutes Cook time 20 minutes

This twist on a traditional chicken Caesar salad sees you ditch the unhelpful ingredients without losing the flavour. The big differences are that we’ve significantly reduced the amount of mayo and gone very easy on the croutons. It’s a dish that captures what the New Body Plan approach to food is all about: making subtle tweaks that have a big impact without feeling like you’re making sacrifices or being denied the food you love.

Ingredients (serves two)

  • 2 chicken breasts, cut into strips
  • Romaine lettuce
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ slice sourdough bread

For the dressing

  • 1tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1tbsp lemon juice
  • 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 2tbsp low-fat mayo
  • 4tbsp natural yogurt
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Grated parmesan

To make

  1. First, make the croutons. Cut the bread into cubes and place in a bowl. Melt a large knob of butter in a pan, then pour the melted butter over the bread cubes. Season them with salt and pepper and place on a baking tray. Bake that in the oven, turning occasionally, for about 15-20 minutes or until the cubes are golden brown. Remove the croutons from the oven and set them aside.
  2. While the croutons are in the oven, boil the eggs. Shell and quarter them, then set them to one side.
  3. Cut the chicken into strips, lightly coat the strips with rapeseed oil, then season and place under a medium grill for ten to 12 minutes, turning halfway through.
  4. Meanwhile, chuck all the ingredients for the dressing into a bowl and stir until well mixed.
  5. Chop the lettuce, then add the chicken, eggs and croutons, then drizzle over the dressing. Scatter a little extra parmesan if you like.

Calories 428, protein 54g, carbs 8g, fat 20g

Swaps and tips

Fishy business If you don’t like anchovies then, er, don’t use them!

Optional extras If you want to bag an extra health hit, you can add a handful of broccoli florets. Just steam them for a few minutes, then finish them off under the grill for three to four more minutes. And if you want a secret ingredient for the sauce, try adding a dash of Worcestershire sauce. It gives it a lovely tang.

Time saver You can make the croutons, the chicken and even the eggs the night before to save you time on the day. You could even make the dressing the night before and store it in the fridge for an even quicker meal.

Body benefits

Chicken is high in protein and that’s a great reason to include it in any fat-burning and muscle-building dish, but it also contains a host of other useful nutrients. It’s high in B vitamins, which are vital for energy production, as well as being a good source of zinc, magnesium and iron.

Parmesan gets a hard time from a health point of view because it is very calorie-dense, but you only need a small amount for a powerful umami hit of savoury flavour that adds depth to any dish. It also provides protein and calcium, and vitamin A, which is good for your skin.

Natural yogurt is a good source of protein and a natural probiotic, which can help to regulate your blood sugar levels. Some research also suggests that yogurt can be useful for appetite regulation, which is handy if you’re aiming to reduce your body fat levels.

Power Prawn Curry


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Prep time 10 minutes Cook time 20 minutes

You don’t automatically think of a curry as a healthy meal. That’s partly because a lot of them are made with generous quantities of butter and cream… and they’re also often washed down with a few pints of lager. But there are so many ways of making curries and lots of them fit easily into the way we encourage you to eat while following the New Body Plan. Even better, it’s also possible to make them in a way that’s both quick and tastes great.

Ingredients (serves two)

  • 200g prawns
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • Rapeseed oil
  • 1tsp chilli powder
  • 1tsp ground coriander
  • 1tsp ground cumin
  • ½tsp ginger
  • ½tsp turmeric
  • 1tsp curry paste
  • 100g basmati rice

To make

  1. Heat some rapeseed oil in a pan. Add the diced onion to the pan and fry until golden brown. Add the garlic and ginger and reduce the heat.
  2. Add 100ml of water and simmer for about ten minutes.
  3. Add the chilli, coriander, cumin and turmeric and cook for a further five minutes.
  4. Add the prawns and the curry paste and cook for five minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the rice according to packaging instructions.

That’s it. You’re done. Just serve the curry with the rice and enjoy!

Calories 331, protein 22g, carbs 45g, fat 7g

Swaps and tips

Mix it up We’ve used prawns in this recipe but you could use anything you fancy. Chicken or lamb would work well and you could even make a veg version by adding chickpeas or butternut squash.

Jon Lipsey

Jon Lipsey worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Jon was deputy editor and editor from 2007 to 2013. He returned as editor-in-chief from 2016 to 2019. He also co-founded IronLife Media and the New Body Plan