Dieting for Fitness Progress

Most of us have tried making healthy eating a habit, but when life gets busy, somehow we slip back into familiar, less healthy eating patterns. Why does a busy lifestyle make sticking to a healthy diet so difficult? This article explores some common barriers to nutrition plan adherence and offers recommendations for making healthy eating a permanent lifestyle change, even for the busiest people.

The Challenge of Diet Adherence

To understand what makes sticking to a diet tough, we need to consider what an effective diet requires:

  • A dietary goal, such as to lose, maintain, or gain weight
  • Nutritional targets, such as daily calorie, protein, fat, and carbohydrate targets
  • A meal plan tailored to one’s nutritional targets
  • Adhering to one’s meal plan consistently, which includes buying food, cooking, and measuring portions

If you’re like most people, you read these requirements and think, “Dieting sounds complex.” And yes, an effective diet plan is inherently complex, which is why millions of people struggle to adhere to a healthy diet long term.

Devising and sticking to a traditional diet requires a significant amount of time and energy, and most people’s lives seem too busy for such a diet to succeed. When you’re in the thick of a busy workweek, complete with needy clients, a demanding boss, and an active homelife, there’s little room for tedious meal planning, preparation, and cooking. If you relate to this scenario, your number one barrier to healthier eating is friction: the inefficient use of time and energy.

Why Exercise Isn’t Enough

Many busy people with weight-loss or weight-maintenance goals assume they can eliminate dieting friction altogether by exercising their way to improved fitness. The idea is to avoid a daily calorie surplus (burning fewer calories than they consume) by burning lots of extra calories every day through exercise.

The most glaring (of many) problems with the all-exercise no-diet method is that it requires an amount of exercise that isn’t sustainable long term. It’s much more efficient to consistently avoid a calorie surplus by limiting the size of meal portions than by doing tons of exercise. The reality is that your body burns substantially more calories in sustaining your bodily systems and through your routine daily activities than you could hope to burn through exercise.

For instance, a 190-pound man who’s five feet ten inches tall burns about 2,000 calories per day living a sedentary lifestyle. He can burn roughly 2,400 calories per day by adding three hours of exercise to his weekly routine—which meets the activity guidelines for general adult health. This means that even if you’re active enough to stay healthy, less than 20 percent of the calories you burn are the result of your exercise routine.

To achieve a modest goal such as losing one pound per week, the man in our example would need to burn about 500 more calories per day (in addition to what he’s burning with three hours of weekly exercise). To exercise these extra 500 daily calories away, he’d need to double his amount of weekly exercise to six hours per week. To lose two pounds per week, he’d have to triple his weekly exercise to nine hours.

You can see why the all-exercise approach quickly becomes unrealistic. Exercise as a means of regulating calorie expenditure is very time intensive. In other words, the exercise-only approach creates tons of friction in a busy lifestyle. The most efficient way to avoid a calorie surplus is to control food portions and let the calories automatically burned by your body for daily life do most of the work.

This doesn’t mean that exercise is useless. Exercise certainly contributes to your daily energy expenditure and is essential to basic fitness and bodily health, but regular exercise is more important for metabolic and cellular health than for regulating calorie expenditure and body weight. While not a hard and fast rule, the common wisdom—that 80 percent of weight loss comes from what you eat—turns out to be true in most cases.

Tips for Sustainable Dieting

Sustainable control of one’s daily calorie expenditure requires sticking to a healthy diet, but how does one overcome all the friction that people typically encounter when attempting to build and follow a healthy meal plan? To eliminate friction when you’re busy, you must find ways to eliminate steps from the dieting process and reduce the number of decisions required to get a healthy meal option on your plate. The best way to achieve this is by having a structured meal plan to follow during the workweek so that there’s little to do or think about in the heat of the moment when you’re hungry.

The list below describes the steps needed to design a basic meal plan that helps eliminate dieting friction:

  1. Determine your basic body composition goal: lose, maintain, or gain weight.
  2. Develop nutritional targets: how many calories and how much protein, carbohydrates, and fat to eat each day. (You can also include other variables if you wish, such as sodium, cholesterol, added sugar, etc.)
  3. Develop three to five go-to meals that you can eat regularly to help you hit your daily nutrition targets.

Now that you know the basic steps to develop a low-friction diet plan, check the recommendations below for success on each step.


Setting your goal depends on personal preference; it’s up to you which direction you want to steer your fitness progress, but for general health, it’s a good idea to aim for a body-fat percentage in the athletic, fit, or normal range. If you’re unable to check your body-fat percentage, it’s best to aim for a BMI (body mass index) between 18.5 and 24.9. See below for an example of a goal profile.


Age 35
Weight (lb.) 173.2
Height (in.) 65
Body mass goal 1 lb. weight loss per week
Activity level Light activity

(1 to 3 hours of exercise per week)

Target body fat (%) 22
Target body weight (lb.) 135.5
Required fat mass change (lb.) -37.75



To develop nutritional targets for daily calorie, protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake, you can use the free fitness calculator on my website. Just plug in some information about you and your goals, and the calculator will autogenerate targets for you. See an example below.
















(4 calories/gram)

112 448 30 37 149
(9 calories/gram)
33 297 20 11 99
(4 calories/gram)
189 756 50 63 252
Total calories   1,500     500



Set aside an hour to design some meals that align with your daily nutrition targets. The idea is to build meals that you can stick to during the workweek so that you don’t have to do much thinking or decision-making during your weekly grind. Ideally, you will update your plan only occasionally when you need to add variety or your goals change. Be sure to select food options that you’ll consistently have time to prepare, and consider a few grab-and-go options (such as a protein shake or bar). Use a nutrition app, such as Lose It! or MyFitnessPal, to help make the meal design process easier—these apps do the calculations automatically. See a few example meals below.












Greek yogurt, plain 6 oz. 17 7.9 0 102
Peach, large 1 whole 1.6 16.7 0.4 68
Whole-grain toast 1 piece 5 22 2 120
Butter, unsalted 4 g 0 0 3.2 29
Jam, blackberry 1 tbsp 0 13 0 50
Total   23.6 59.6 5.6 369













Skinless turkey breast 5.6 oz. 34 0 1.4 170
Whole-grain wheat bread 2 slices 10 44 4 240
Tomato 1 slice 0.1 0.6 0 3
Lettuce 2 cups 0.6 2.1 0.1 10
Avocado 2 slices 2 8 14 160
Clementine orange 1 whole 0.6 8.9 0.1 35
Total   47.7 63.5 19.7 618













Sea scallops 6 oz. 28.6 4.5 1.5 151
Roasted mushrooms 0.5 cup 3.5 4.2 4.9 67
Brown rice, cooked 133 g 3.4 30.7 1.2 147
Mixed vegetables 170 g 4 22 0 120
Field greens salad 2 cups 1 2.6 0.1 14
Balsamic vinegar 1 tbsp 0.1 2.7 0 14
Total   40.6 66.7 7.7 513

Daily total












If you follow these steps and tips, you will be able to bring structure to your diet plan, which makes it much easier to make healthy meal choices during the busy workweek.