What To Do When You Can’t Count – A Letter From Two Soldiers In Afghanistan

This is not the first e-mail I’ve had from soldiers in a war zone, but it is the first that I was told I was free to publish. I enjoy reading military biographies, history, and war stories, so I’ve been keen to publish one of these for a while.

The soldiers talk about the difficulties they faced while trying to get their diet and training right while away, and how they overcame them. This may seem like a strange thing to focus your attention on while you’re in such a place, but it’s quite common among service personnel, and I can definitely see how pounding the weights would be a nice distraction. Working to get your diet right to support that is the natural extension.

It gave me great pleasure to read this, and I hope you can take something away from it too.

Dear Andy,

Although I am not a client of yours, I am keen to show you the progress that me and my friend James have had over the last 5 months.  Simply because using the information on your website has changed our lives.

I must firstly, congratulate you on a fabulous website and for simplifying the Leangains approach and making it very user-friendly for people like me to follow and get results.

I am sure we are one success story in hundreds using your guidelines but where we may differ is that we have made this progress whilst serving as soldiers in Afghanistan.  We are both Engineers in the British Army and have spent the last 5 months preparing to withdraw our troops.

Being in Afghanistan has brought challenges with your approach to dieting, as you may imagine.

  1. Inability to prepare or cook meals. This was all centrally prepared and served.  This often meant that we did not know what was available until we turned up and we had to really rely on the basics of the system; high protein every day with low fat/high carb on training days and high fat/low carb on rest days.

I actually believe that this was the key to our results!  When dieting in the past I have often over-complicated things, second-guessed too much and thus not achieved the goals that were set.  Being restricted in what we had available actually made it easier.  We went for food at regular times, got a slab of meat at each sitting and added either rice and veg, or just veg, dependant on the day we were on.  We often had ice cream on training days as this was a luxury too good to pass up on and would not last forever!!!

  1. Portion Control.  With no way to measure out our food, it ultimately came down to trial and error to ensure we were hitting the required macros.  As you indicate in your articles, too little food and we risk plateauing and stalling our fat loss progress along with not maximizing our strength gains.

To get over this we monitored our progress frequently to ensure the numbers on the barbell were increasing whilst the scales, mirror and tape measure were also showing positive.  At times this was difficult and I spent almost 6 weeks at the same weight to try and find the ‘magic’ daily quantity of food.  This was probably the biggest challenge we faced.

  1. Hidden macros.  These were a major hazard we definitely needed to keep an eye on!!  This most certainly bit me in the arse on a number of occasions and probably explained a 6-week stall I had. [Probably, but possibly not. See here for an example of 6-8 weeks of water retention a client had recently and here for why I made the decision to not change things. – Andy]

The majority of the food available to us was usually coated in sauces and we generally had no way of knowing what the food had been cooked in.  Again, this was trial and error and to get over this one we simply adopted a rule where if a food was covered in sauce we simply reduced the amount we consumed that day to compensate.  It seemed to work so we stuck with it.

  1. Time constraints.  Due to our workload, we were naturally forced to keep things simple due to time constraints, usually only having an hour to train, including warm up and cool down.

Pace of life in Afghanistan never really allowed us to set a training time either, meaning we trained at various times of the day from dawn till dusk.  All we did was compensate how much we ate dependant on when we trained; train in the morning = biggest meal at lunch.  Evening training = a light lunch and big evening meal.  For actual training, we used a 5/3/1 template set around heavy compound movements that saw good strength increases for both of us during our adventure.  James’ numbers were particularly impressive but he was very much a novice lifter.

I suppose all this is a very long-winded way of basically saying that sticking to the basics and not over complicating things works.

I have attached some photos to indicate our 5-month progress.  While these may not be earth shattering I think they are significant improvements and in the case of James, he has now adopted the Leangains lifestyle and wonders why he ever ate breakfast in the first place.

Now I am back in Blighty [Britain] I have decided to conduct a 5-week test where I have been counting my macros accurately to see how much I was eating and to try and cut down a few more percent with the body fat prior to Christmas!

Thanks for reading and have a very festive season,


Gary - Experienced trainee
Gary – Experienced Trainee
James - New to strength training
James – New to strength training.

Note: You are an individual, your results will vary depending on genetics, adherence, and effort.

Gary, James,

Thank you both for the e-mail. You’ve just made my morning.

When people know they can’t cook their meals and count macros exactly, so often they often give up instead of just applying a little common sense, eyeballing things as best they can, and seeing where it takes them. You’re quite right when you said that it doesn’t have to be made complicated for most people to be successful – as long as they stay disciplined. You two are a testament to that.

Gary – In fairness to yourself, the fat loss tend to hit a wall right around the point you’ve gotten to (a little before actually) and people usually need to start counting to go from nearly ripped to ripped and then shredded. (You’ll see definitions for those categories in the latest guide on the site.) I see no reason why you won’t be able to take it from ripped to shredded fairly easily now you’re starting to count.

James – Just a little more fat loss and those abs will come through nicely. There is a point of discomfort just before that where you’ll feel your skinniest as it’s the leanest you’ll get before the abs come through. Everyone goes through that, push through and get them popping to see how you feel. If you wish to start counting from that point and slow-bulk, then starting leaner is the best way forward.

To you both – you’ve just been away for a long time. Make sure you take a diet break, for both the mental release and the hormonal benefits before plunging further.

“When people know they can’t cook their meals and count macros exactly, so often they often give up instead of just taking applying a little common sense, eyeballing things as best they can, and seeing where it takes them.”

This is a point that needs to be made clearer on the site. We could turn this into a quick post: “What to do when you can’t count – a letter from two soldiers in Afghanistan” or something like that. I can basically just copy and paste your whole email as it speaks for itself. Faces are better left in but can, of course, be blurred out. But, please, feel absolutely no pressure to say yes to this.

Lastly, thanks to you both for doing what you do.


Top photo: A soldier from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment (The Vikings) stands to attention as his regiment receives their Afghanistan Operational Service Medal at Picton Barracks in Bulford, England, on November 1, 2012. The parade was the first in a series of events marking the end of their successful six-month deployment to Afghanistan as part of Task Force Helmand. The parade comes during the same week that two more British soldiers were shot dead at a checkpoint in Afghanistan by a man wearing a local police uniform. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Related post you may find this useful:

How to Count Macros – A More Flexible Approach

Rabbit Carrot

An easier and more sustainable method to counting your macros than entering every single food and drink you eat, into a nutritional calculator every day.

  • How and Why To Be Consistently Inaccurate
  • Common Counting Mistakes
  • How To Make Your Own Counting Rules
  • Simplified Counting Rule Suggestions
  • ‘The 10% Rule’ – Accuracy Targets That Are Accurate Enough

Read more…


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They both look you younger and much more handsome!
Most inspiring story. There are definitely no excuses! 🙂

Kent S.
Kent S.

Andy! Happy holidays to you from the US! Like these gents, I’m thankful I got to work with you for the past several months. Just recently went to a wedding in Las Vegas with a bunch of fraternity brothers from my college days. They all said I looked to be in the best shape they’ve ever seen me. I know that wouldn’t have happened without your help!


Andy this is an awesome post. Gary’s progress is especially inspiring. For many guys that is an ideal endgoal bodyfat level, and the fact that he was able to achieve it without counting or a perfect training schedule or lifestyle (it’s never perfect, let’s face it) is really inspiring.

I’m attempting a slow cut to single digit bf currently while eating by feel. I have enough experience with strict counting that I hope I can make it work, but it might be a tall order for a natural endomorph like myself. It does sound like they were still guestimating macros and roughly counting, though, rather than eating by feel.


Amazing. Good job lads!

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