Dieting can be a tough process both physically and mentally, especially when dieting down to contest levels of leanness.
Even when doing everything “right”: having food high/cardio low prior to starting a cut or contest prep, taking adequate time between cuts, making small adjustments when plateaus happen, getting away with as much food/as little cardio as you can get away with while seeing adequate progress, etc. there are still going to be times that you just kind of have to “go there” to reach your goals.
However, during times food is low, it is important to maximize caloric allotment to stay full, meet macro- and micronutrient requirements and stay consistent so to progress towards an individual’s fitness goals.
Below are 30 tips for maximizing food volume that we encourage all of our readers. Although following these will not necessarily eliminate hunger during a cut, they may help to keep it in check.
1 – High Volume/Low-Calorie Veggies
This tip is probably the most obvious for increasing food volume; however, it is one of the more effective ways to feel full.
Foods such as squash, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, celery, mushrooms, zucchini, spinach, lettuce, pumpkin, etc. can be consumed in large amounts without using up a ton of an individual’s daily caloric allotment.
Also, by having a variety of veggies it will help ensure micronutrient needs are met, something often overlooked during a cut.
2 – Low-Fat Protein Sources
When really grinding during a diet, most individuals are consuming high protein with lower carbs and/or fat. During these times, failing to pay attention to the fat content of protein sources can easily eat up a limited daily fat allotment.
One way to increase food volume is to get protein from low-fat dairy, chicken, extra lean beef, fish, extra lean turkey, low-fat protein supplements, egg whites, etc. This will save your fat for items such as nuts, nut butter (almond butter is my personal favorite), seeds, essential fatty acid supplements like fish oil and avocado.
3 – Don’t Drink Calories
One common way to miss out on potential food volume and limit the number of calories/macros available is drinking calories because in general drinking calories do not lead to feeling as full as eating them.
Limit foods like regular soda, alcohol, fruit juice, coffee with a lot of added cream/sugar and replace them with whole food. This will result in significantly more room to fit in food bulk and feel fuller overall.
4 – Make Fun Tasty Food
When food is low, the flavor can often get thrown out the window. However, there are numerous recipes that will fit into even low macro numbers and provide bulk. In addition, many recipes can be modified to become more macro-friendly.
Some examples of this from my most recent contest prep include: cauliflower pizza crust, egg white frittata, stuffed pepper soup, enchilada casserole, red velvet protein cheesecake, cauliflower alfredo with spaghetti squash, jalapeño popper chicken, chicken curry, stir fry, chicken cacciatore, mock enchiladas, zucchini lasagna, picante chicken, pumpkin protein cheesecake, cauliflower mashed potatoes, Greek yogurt chicken, broccoli casserole, cauliflower cheddar biscuits, stuffed peppers, low-carb high-protein brownies, low-carb chili and many other recipes. Recipes and pictures of these can be found on my Instagram (@fitbodyphysique).
By fitting in a couple of meals that taste good and provide bulk weekly it can make periods where you are really grinding more enjoyable.
5 – Low Carb or Easily Measurable Fruit
One mistake many people make when food (especially carbs) get low is eliminating fruit because it is higher in carbs and in many cases doesn’t provide a lot volume. However, this can potentially lead to vitamin/mineral deficiencies.
Instead of cutting out fruit completely, fit in lower carb fruits with smaller serving sizes such as plums or Clementine’s. In addition fitting in fruits that can be easily measured like blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries can be an easy way to eat fruit when intake is low.
6 – Cooking Substitutions
Many tasty recipes can be modified to be more macro friendly and fit in easier during periods where food is low.
- Some examples of cooking substitutions include:
- using extra lean cuts of meat
- using fat-free or reduced-fat dairy – fat-free plain Greek yogurt for heavy cream
- plain unsweetened almond milk for regular milk
- artificial sweetener for sugar
- applesauce for oil
There is a number of other cooking substitutions that can be made as well and there is generally a way to make almost any tasty recipe lower calorie and more macro friendly with some creativity.
7 – High Volume Carb Sources
As many of you know I’m an advocate for flexible dieting both because it is more sustainable, results in a healthier relationship with food, and because there is no food that does/does not cause weight gain/loss alone.
With that being said, many flexible dieters enjoy things like low-fat ice cream, pop tarts, chocolate in moderation while still getting a majority of their food from nutrient-dense sources.
However, when food is low, it may not be a bad idea to fit in more filling carb sources to stay full and to be a bit less flexible. Eating things like oatmeal, cream of wheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, low carb bread, high fiber tortillas, popcorn, fruits, veggies, etc. as carb sources is going to help increase satiety more than using a large portion of an individual’s daily allotment of items such as pop tarts and ice cream.
8 – Eat Your Fat
When caloric intake is low, fat intake is often also low. Many people find they run out of fat as a byproduct of hitting their protein and carb numbers limiting the number of foods high in mono and polyunsaturated fat they can consume.
Sticking to leaner cuts of meat, eggs whites, low fat protein supplements, low-fat/fat-free dairy, etc. for protein sources, lower fat carb sources and not adding additional oils, high-fat dressings, butter, etc. will spare fat and allow you to eat more volume and sources of mono and polyunsaturated fat such as nuts, seeds, nut butter (side note: almond butter and nut butters, in general, are probably one of my favorite foods), avocado, fish, flax oil, etc.
9 – Foods That Take A While To Eat
One thing that individuals typically notice when food is low and they are really grinding is that eating seems to not take very long due to a combination of being hungry and just not having much food. This can mess with someone mentally and potentially makes food preoccupation and hunger worse. Therefore, it is important to find foods that take a while to eat.
One of my favorites is plain popcorn popped in an air popper. It is a high fiber carb source that takes a while to eat. Other things that potentially take a while to eat include rice cakes, cereal, large quantities of veggies, a pint of arctic zero, protein fluff, etc.
Some of these things may be difficult to fit in on regular days when food is low but can provide a nice mental break on a refeed day because it allows an individual to eat something that actually takes a time to eat.
10 – Avoid Alcohol
When food is low it is generally in your best interest to avoid alcohol. Drinking calories from an energy-dense beverage like alcohol is going to significantly restrict food volume throughout the day. Although I’m generally a big proponent of flexible dieting and moderation, when food is low alcohol is something I would probably eliminate especially if the goal is maximizing food volume.
11 – Water
Working with clients one thing I have noticed is that many that complain of hunger while dieting are not consuming adequate water. Consuming adequate water intake can help to feel fuller and I find that sometimes it almost seems like thirst can be masked as hunger.
A good place to start for daily water consumption is 2/3oz per lb of body weight at the minimum daily however if working out, sweating, working a physical job, etc. intake will need to be increased beyond this point to replace losses.
On a side note, in general, when individuals get water intake up to adequate levels they often feel better overall and perform better in the gym as well.
12 – Low Carb Protein Sources
When caloric intake is low oftentimes carbs are lower yet protein is still high. Therefore, finding sources of protein that don’t use up daily carb allotment is going to be beneficial in maximizing food volume because those carbs can be used for something else (e.g. veggies) that provides more volume.
Greek yogurt (especially the flavored kind), cottage cheese, protein bars, and some protein shakes are foods high in protein that also contain a good amount of carbs. Keeping your intake of these in check (without eliminating dairy, that will only result in vitamin/mineral deficiencies) while getting more of your protein from lower carb protein sources such as lean meat, fish, and egg whites can go a long way towards sparing carbs that can be used for other higher volume foods.
13 – Food Distribution
An individual’s hunger pattern throughout the day can greatly differ from person to person. Some people (such as me) spread food out fairly evenly throughout the day because this helps keep hunger in check. Others, such as those who struggle with night eating, find that distributing more of their food to periods of time where they tend to be hungrier helps control hunger and allow them to stay consistent.
Ultimately, distributing food in a way that works best for an individual to keep hunger in check and stay consistent with their nutrition plan on a daily basis is going to be what is best because without consistency no approach will work.
14 – Noodle Substitutes
When carbs are low, noodles and noodle dishes are often hard to fit in because they chew up a good number carbs. Fortunately, there are a number of substitutes that can be used for noodles that will also increase food volume.
By using lower carb noodle substitutes such as spaghetti squash, zucchini, green chilies, etc. you can enjoy noodles and noodle dishes while sparing carbs which can then be used to eat more volume.
15 – Limit Protein Bars
Protein bars are a convenient source of protein when schedules get busy. However, they also contain a decent amount of carbs/fat without a lot of food volume and oftentimes aren’t incredibly filling.
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Minimizing protein bar consumption during a period of low calories and instead of getting those calories from food can significantly increase food volume and satiety.
16 – Minimize Eating Out
Eating out can use up a large chunk of daily calorie/macronutrient allotments. One alternative to eating out is making more macro-friendly versions of similar dishes at home. Here is some example of things I have made during my last contest prep (recipes and pics on my Instagram @fitbodyphysique):
Burgers and fries – 900 calories for my version (2000 calorie for equivalent at McDonald’s)
Cheesecake – 350 calories for ¼ of my version (1000 calories from equivalent at cheesecake factory)
Lasagna – 450 calories for 1/6 of 9×12 pan for my version (1000 calories from equivalent at olive garden)
Chicken and broccoli Alfredo – 400 calories for my version which is likely larger than a restaurant (1100 calories from equivalent at olive garden)
The take-home point from all of this is that foods can be made more macro-friendly to increase food volume. Could progress be made while eating out regularly? Yes (assuming food consumed is being accounted for), however, an individual will likely have a lot more food volume by minimizing eating out when food is low.
17 – Calorie-Free Sauces and Flavorings
During dieting, it is easy to fall into the trap of eating boring, bland food. Dressings, ketchup, BBQ sauce, mayo, etc. contain carbs and calories so food often ends up unflavored. However, by using things like mustard, calorie-free wing sauce, and any number of things from the Waldon Farms line foods can be flavored without using a large portion of daily caloric allotment.
18 – High Fiber Tortillas and Wraps
High fiber tortillas and wraps can be used in place of bread, tortillas, and wraps to save calories and carbs when intake is low. They can also be used as a mock pizza crust and are a nice alternative to pizza or cheese sticks when topped with fat free cheese, Italian seasoning, garlic and potentially sauce, veggies, and/or lean meat.
On a side note: for those tracking macros count the carbs from fiber towards daily carb totals. Fiber is fermented by bacteria in the gut into products such as short chain fatty acids which the body absorbs and uses as an energy source so fiber is not calorie-free.
19 – Artificial Sweeteners
Contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners have not been shown to be detrimental for health in amounts typically consumed by humans. In addition, they make a nice sugar substitute for those with a sweet tooth when caloric intake is low.
Substituting sweeteners into baked goods such as protein pancakes, protein cheesecake, high protein brownies, etc. can cut down on the carb and calorie content while providing a high-protein option.
Additionally including beverages that are artificially sweetened (e.g. diet soda, crystal lite, low carb energy drinks) can help curb a sweet tooth and improve dietary compliance.
Inclusion of artificially sweetened products (such as the Waldon Farms line) can cut down on caloric intake as can subbing them for sugar in coffee.
Through its many diverse uses artificial sweetener can spare calories that can be used elsewhere to maximize food volume.
20 – Making Smaller Portions
When calories/carbs are low oftentimes fruit gets eliminated from the diet due to its high carb content. This can result in micronutrient deficiencies.
For example, an apple is roughly 20g carbs, but something as simple as slicing it and sharing with someone can allow you to fit in some of it without using as much calorie/carb content. Similarly oranges, grapefruit, etc. can be easily portioned out and split with someone or even save the other half for another time.
By not eliminating any foods or food groups (such as fruit) vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be avoid while working towards an individual’s fitness goals.
21 – Don’t Eliminate Foods
Diets promoting elimination of foods or food groups are commonly promoted as a method to lose body fat. However, complete elimination of foods or food groups is not sustainable, increases the likelihood of a binge, and may lead to a disordered relationship with food.
Instead of eliminating foods when caloric intake is low, eat craved foods in moderation. This may be difficult when food is low; however, even things like a bite sized candy to curb a sweet tooth can go a long way to preventing a binge.
In addition, it may be easier to fit in some of these types of foods on a refeed day when intake is higher (note I said refeed day not cheat day which is just an excuse to binge and develop a disordered relationship with food).
The vast majority of food should be coming from nutrient dense whole foods (especially when intake is low); however, any food can still be consumed in moderation so long as daily macro- and micro-nutrient needs are met.
22 – Cauliflower
Cauliflower has to be one of the most versatile foods in existence and at 5g carb, 2g protein, and trace fat for 100g raw it easily fits into anyone’s caloric/macronutrient intake, even when food is low.
Aside from eating cauliflower raw, steamed, or in a stir-fry or casserole as most do, there is so much more that can be done with it.
For example, it can be used to make cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower mashed potatoes, cauliflower alfredo sauce, and cauliflower rice, all of which I’ve consumed during the late stages of my most recent contest prep. Using cauliflower as a substitution allowed me to easily fit these things into my daily macros and have plenty of room left to really maximize food volume.
23 – Limit Prepackaged Meals
Frozen prepackaged meals are convenient when schedules get busy. However, many of these meals (even those marketed as “healthy”) still may contain a good amount of calories, carbs, and/or fat without also containing a whole lot of volume.
For example, a “healthy” pizza has nearly 400 cals and over 60g carbs for a personal sized pizza which can really put a dent into calorie and carb intake when daily allotment is low. Even meals that are lower in calories may not be in the best interest of food volume maximization because frankly the serving size is not that large.
In order to best maximize food volume don’t heavily rely on prepackaged meals.
24 – Diet Soda
When food is low and hunger is high a diet soda can really help take the edge off. The carbonation can increase satiety, the sweetness can help with those with a sweet tooth prevent binges, and soda (or sugar free energy drinks) with caffeine can provide a bit of a kick when energy is low.
With that being said, a vast majority of fluid intake should come from water while having things like diet soda in moderation. However, a diet soda here and there can really help take the edge off.
25 – Powdered Peanut Butter – PB Lean
Nuts butters are one of my favorite foods. However at roughly 16g fat, 8g carb, 7g protein for a standard serving of peanut butter it can be hard to fit a whole lot in when food is low without it chewing up a large chunk of daily caloric allotment.
PB Lean represents a really awesome alternative and is only 5g pro, 5g carb, and 1.5g fat per serving. It isn’t quite the same as pb when reconstituted but is close enough when food is low.
Also combining PB Lean with reduced sugar or sugar free jelly on low carb bread or a high fiber tortilla can make a pretty solid pb & j that is more macro-friendly.
26 – Limit Calorie-Containing Flavorings
Calorie-containing flavorings use up calories without really providing much in terms of food volume. A common place where carbs/calories are wasted on flavor is Greek yogurt. Eating flavored Greek yogurt adds an additional 7-10g carbs/serving and in some cases protein intake of flavored Greek yogurts are lower than their plain counterparts as well. These may not be desirable for someone with low carbs/cals and high protein.
To spare calories/carbs stick to non-flavored foods when it comes to things like Greek yogurt and when adding flavorings choose something calorie-free (such as a Waldon Farms product) to spare carbs and calories.
27 – Sugar-Free Gum
Even when doing everything possible to maximize food volume, hunger is likely going to be present at least to some extent when caloric intake is low. Chewing on sugar-free gum between meals when hunger is high can help to take the edge off.
In addition, it is often nice to chew on something because as weird as that sounds when food is low it really does feel as if meals don’t take long so it is sometimes just nice to have something to chew on.
In addition, the sweet flavor can help to curb a sweet tooth.
28 – Arctic Zero
Ice cream is a common food craving while dieting; however, it can be hard to fit in a whole lot of ice cream when calories (and especially carbs) are lower without using up a decent chunk of daily caloric allotment.
Arctic zero is a low calorie ice cream (roughly 12g pro, 28g carb, 0g fat for the entire pint) that provides an ice cream fix at times when things get rough. It doesn’t taste quite the same as regular ice cream and it isn’t as creamy, but deep into a cut when really pushing it is close enough to address cravings and help prevent binging to stay on track.
29 – Xanthan Gum
Xanthan gum is commonly used as an alternative to flour in those who are gluten-free. However, it also can be used as a thickener to increase volume of foods.
Protein fluff is an example of this. It can be made by combining ice, xanthan gum, protein powder (whey protein isolate for those really trying to spare carbs/fat), and unsweetened almond or cashew milk and blending hard for 5-10min.
During the blending process, the overall volume multiples and creates a large quantity of a fluffy pudding-like substance that is very filling and low-calorie/carb/fat and also high-protein.
30 – Intake Should Not Be Permanent
When caloric intake is low avoiding hunger completely may not be possible. However, the tips presented in this series may help keep it in check by maximizing food volume.
For anyone who is really grinding and hungry, one thing to keep in mind is that this intake should not be permanent. It is not healthy or sustainable to stay at extremely low intakes long term. Yes, there are absolutely times where individuals may need to “go there” to reach their goals, but the key to long-term success is not to stay there long term.
I hope this series has helped to provide ideas for maximizing food volume when caloric intake is low and I wish everyone the best of luck in reaching their fitness goals.
These are just some of the tips and tricks we use with our clients when macros are lower than we would like.
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