Nutrition, like many topics covered in our book and on this website, are vast topics that people spend decades studying. However, the majority of people we work with can get everything they need for a successful career without ever diving into the weeds. The trivial details obsessed over by most supplement companies and anyone selling you a magic diet don’t matter compared to nailing the fundamentals consistently.
If you find yourself obsessing over your post workout nutrient mix, which type of creatine you take, or the difference in blood glucose levels when eating rice vs. potatoes, you’re missing the point.
Before we get started, there is another important caveat: the guidelines in this article assume that you are healthy, young and free of any medical conditions that require specific nutrition considerations.
While we aren’t going into extreme detail, nutrition is a vital part of the overall process of building and maintaining physiological resilience. Having energy on demand, regardless of circumstances, is key to thriving in the chaotic environment in which special operations units work. Nutrition also plays a significant role in recovery, which is half of the adaptation process.
We recommend spending at least a few months dialing in the basics, until you can do them regardless of the normal ups and downs of a challenging life. If you’re reading this, you likely have at least a basic knowledge of nutrition and some reasonable eating habits in place. However, you probably fall into at least one of the following problematic categories:
- Intermittent fasting
- Low carb
- Poor nutrient intake (low quality foods)
- Really strict periods followed by free-for-alls
Combine this with far too much of the wrong kind of training, and you’re likely in a poor state to stress your body with advanced nutritional phases (we’ll cover those in another article). Advanced protocols only work well when the proper foundation has been built
The purpose of the foundational phase is to balance out systemic stress, and position the body’s various systems to adapt well to future training.
By dialing in food quality and quantity and correcting any nutrient imbalances present, you will likely see improvements in systemic hormonal function. Pair the nutrition strategies in this phase with training that emphasizes lower-volume strength work and low-intensity aerobic work. Your goal should be to optimize body composition and wake up feeling good every day.
This phase also serves as an opportunity to work on skills and routines such as shopping, food prep, and generally not eating like an oversized child. You don’t need to be a robot. Give yourself some flexibility as long as you stick to the guidelines below about 90-95% of the time.
Basic diet template during the foundational phase:
- No refined sugars, alcohol, plant seed-based oils, dairy, or wheat-based products
- Primarily whole, minimally-processed foods (think: things you have to prep and cook rather than things you take out of a box and microwave)
- 3-4 larger meals each day (no snacks) composed of the following:
|1g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 50-70g each meal / 2 palms worth each meal
Any non-processed (ideally) grass-fed, wild caught (fish) meat
|.5g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 20-30g each meal / 2 thumbs worth each meal
Avocado, coconut, nuts and nut butters, seeds, olives, animal fats
|1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 50-80g each meal / 2-3 cupped handfuls worth each meal
Rice, oats, quinoa, ancient grains, potatoes, beans, corn
|8+ cups per day with a 2:1 ratio of veg/fruit / 2 fists worth each meal
All fruits and vegetables can be eaten (starchy vegetables fall into the carbohydrate category)
Total calories: 18-20x bodyweight (total, not lean mass). In rare cases, up to 25x bodyweight.*
*Do not obsess over calorie counting. Even if you weigh and measure every single picogram of food you put in your body, there is so much variability in the caloric and macro content of everything you eat that you’re getting an educated guess (at best) of actual intake. That’s not to say that calorie intake and general macro distribution doesn’t matter, but you don’t need to obsess over details (that aren’t accurate) to get what you need. Use general approximations of servings (palm = 1 serving of protein, fist = one serving of fruits and veggies, etc) and adjust based on changes in performance and body composition.
General rules of how much to eat / how to adjust during the foundation phase:
- If you’re getting fat – eat less, specifically carbs and fats in equal portions
- If you’re losing weight – eat more, specifically carbs and fats in equal portions
- If you’re leaning out but not losing weight (maintaining) – you’re doing it right
- If you’re struggling with recovery – eat more, specifically carbs and fats in equal portions and adjust training (more on this later)
That’s all. It doesn’t need to be more complicated, so it isn’t. Assuming you’re healthy and don’t have any medical conditions, once food quality is dialed in, you don’t need space math to adjust your total food intake.
Being young, with a high training volume (assuming you are training for SOF or similar) also affords you more wiggle room and doesn’t require as diverse of a set of skills for managing hunger, social situations, and stress-related eating compared to an older adult.
Note: You will not benefit from moving onto more advanced nutrition protocols until you are below 15% body fat (for men) or roughly 20% for women. Similarly, if you’re below 9-10% (men) or 15% (women), you are likely under-eating and under-recovering. Very low body fat can also make your life miserable in maritime selection courses due to reduced buoyancy and increased susceptibility to hypothermia. Forget about your abs.
The following supplements are suggested. These are common deficiencies in most populations (athletes included).
- Omega 3 / Fish Oil – Even with a healthy diet, intake of these fats is often lower than optimal. They are essential for immune, cardiovascular, and nervous system function. We suggest 1-2 grams of EPA / DHA per day as a baseline.
- Zinc – Mineral that the majority of athletes are deficient in. Plays a large role in anabolic hormone function, sleep, and immune function. We suggest 30mg per day.
- Magnesium – Similar to Zinc, nearly all athletes are deficient in this mineral. Over 300 enzymes in the body need magnesium to function properly. We suggest 400mg per day.
- Vitamin D – Without significant daily sun exposure you’re likely deficient in this very important vitamin. We suggest 1-2,000 IU per day.
- Creatine – Can help with explosive power and strength and has no negative health effects. We recommend 3-5g of creatine monohydrate daily.
- Vitamin K2 – Supports bone density. This is conditionally important if you’re going into a course in which stress fractures are particularly common, such as many Marine programs. If you’re a woman training for a SOF unit you’re likely to be at greater risk for stress fractures because you’re carrying more weight relative to your bodyweight than most other people in your course, which makes this especially beneficial. Aim for around 1,000 mcg per day.
None of these are expensive, and the generic versions are usually fine.
Once you have mastered the basic template above and you are able to do your food shopping, prep, and cooking consistently, and you aren’t experiencing any wild changes in weight, energy, or performance, you’re ready to move onto more advanced phases that we’ll cover in a future article. This typically takes anywhere from 4-12 weeks, but may last longer depending on your current body composition and nutrition habits.
Your goal here is to reach the stage of unconscious competence. Nutrition should be something that you do well, consistently, no matter what’s happening around you, without having to stress out over it. Once it’s an automated skill, you have the foundation necessary to experiment with more advanced protocols and handle the intense training needed for your occupation while supporting your resilience and longevity.